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Fiction, Fiction Fridays, Guest Posts, pandemic

Theme & Style

July 23, 2021
theme

By Sara Gray 

The seminar was wrapping up.

“I want you to think about your poetry,” the poet said. “I want you to think about the themes running through your work, and how your style expresses those themes.”

The poet was a professor in her mid-30’s and would not have been giving a seminar via Zoom to a bunch of amateur poets if it wasn’t for the pandemic that had side-lined her own book tour and other, more prestigious teaching opportunities.

Marie wouldn’t have attended this seminar or any other if it wasn’t for Zoom and the pandemic as well. Instead, she would have been ferrying her children to hockey, soccer, and sleepovers.

For two hours, they had discussed poetry: Gwendolyn Brooks, William Carlos Williams, Mary Oliver. They had analyzed the author’s word choice, the percentage of Latin, French, and Anglo-Saxon root words, the number of adjectives. It had been so long since Marie had spoken to anyone about poetry. Her husband wasn’t interested in it; her children weren’t interested in her; her writing group was forced to delay their meetings because they weren’t allowed to leave their homes, and Betty didn’t know how to set up an online meeting.

For two hours Marie had listened, taken notes, and thought about nothing except poetry. She felt exhilarated, like she had drunk one too many coffees. Unfortunately, they had arrived at the point where they were supposed to ask questions.

The one benefit of everything pivoting to online was that she could, if she wanted to, leave early, turn off her camera, get a mug of tea. It was a little power, sure, but it was still a thrill. She never liked listening to other student’s questions. It was, perhaps, a cruel thought, but she always found the questions to be dumb or repetitive or a clear attempt to grab attention from a well-regarded author who, it was clear, had no real interest in answer the same inane questions she undoubtedly got at every seminar, whether in person or online.

Yes, Marie decided, she would simply leave.

“I can take questions now if –”

She pressed the leave meeting button, cutting the Pulitzer-Prize-winning poet off mid-sentence, which also made her feel giddy. It wasn’t that she didn’t like the poet. In fact, she regarded her work highly, which was why she had signed up for the seminar in the first place, and why she bought and read all of her books even though between her job, children, and her husband, she really only had time to read about twelve books a year.

Twelve books. The thought made her anxious. How was she supposed to pick twelve books out of the hundreds that were published in a year and the millions – billions –that had been published before that? She tried make lists, recording names of authors mentioned at literary events or on Twitter. She kept lists of new releases and other, longer lists of books she hadn’t read yet. A copy of War and Peace glared at her resentfully from her bookshelf, knowing she would never touch it. But still, how did one choose?

She pushed back from her chair and pushed the thought away. She was not supposed to be thinking of her book-related anxiety. She was supposed to be thinking of her own work and how her style worked to express her themes.

She stood up. The floor was cold against her feet. Before she had been confined to her house, she hadn’t noticed the seasons change. One day it was summer – hot, humid – the next day, she was pulling sweatpants over her pyjama bottoms because she was cold. Now, even though she rarely left the house, she found herself noticing the small changes in weather. First, the days were shorter; then, the air-conditioning clicked off for the final time; the leaves were bruised and brittle on the branches, ready to fall; now, she was required to wear socks.

Perhaps she was noticing things like this because there was nothing else to observe. She no longer saw interesting people on the street because no one walked the street. Her social interactions were limited to her husband, her two children, and her sister (though they had stopped seeing her sister because she had read something on Facebook and now refused to wear a mask).

Marie wasn’t out of her husband’s office and already her mind was wondering away from the central question. How did her style impact her themes? The truth was, she wasn’t sure what her style was. She assumed if she wasn’t sure about this, it wasn’t coming across to her audience (which consisted of her husband, her sister, and the people in the Writers in Belville Facebook group she had joined).

Just as she was about to sit back down, the dryer buzzed. She left room and walked down the hall to the laundry room.

She had an open style, she decided. She didn’t like poetry she couldn’t understand. When poems made her feel something just by their rhythm or tension or whatever, she didn’t trust that feeling. If she couldn’t understand, then she couldn’t come to a meeting of the minds with the author.

She opened the washer. The laundry room smelled vaguely of cat litter. Jack, her 10-year old, had promised that if they got a cat, he would scoop its poop every night. Her husband thought it would teach him responsibility. Not surprising Marie – or any mother anywhere – Jack had cleaned the litter box once and had never done it again.

Marie pulled handfuls of wet clothes out of the washing machine. Cold water slipped down her fingers and wrist. The washer was not spinning as efficiently as it should be. The machine was getting old. Marie meant to call someone in to take a look at it, but the machine wasn’t completely broken and laundry kept getting done, so she continually put it off.

Anyway, the washing machine didn’t matter, she reminded herself as she separated out the clothing that went in the dryer from the clothing that needed to be hung to dry, what mattered was style and theme, and how they connected to one another in a poem.

In a writing class she attended once, a girl half her age had said that her poems were too direct. It was true that Marie rarely used rhetoric. Again, it was something she didn’t trust. People tended to gravitate towards similar turns of phrases, and they didn’t always work. In almost every one of her classmate’s pieces, someone ‘paled’ or ‘went pale’. Marie did not think the body worked that way. She had never gone white like that, and she was fairly sure colour did not drain out of one’s face when one was frightened. Maybe it did. But –

Footsteps in the hallway. Marie poked her head of the laundry room.

Rachel was walking by, a box of cookies in her hand. She was still wearing the pyjamas she slept in though it was almost dinner time. Marie hesitated. Rachel was twelve, meaning that everything Marie said or did was offensive, embarrassing, controlling, or otherwise unacceptable. Her daughter had been – still was? – a happy child with friends, good grades, and a wide range of extracurricular activities. It was harder to be all that when one wasn’t allowed to leave the house. Usually, half-way through a Saturday, she would be asking Marie if she could sleep over at a friend’s house, or if she could have friends over so they could gorge on pizza, soda and then fall asleep in front of horror movies while browsing the various social media accounts of the boys they liked and the girls they pretended hate but really admired.

Marie had worried about her daughter in those days as well, but if she was being honest with herself, she knew that Rachel was well-adjusted. Worrying simply felt part of her job as a mother, same as explaining the importance of deodorant and packing school lunches.

Now, though, the worry had transitioned to genuine concern which left Marie feeling like she was permanently free-falling off of a cliff. It was not a pleasant feeling. She didn’t know if she should take away the cookies and force Rachel to shower and put on a pair of jeans. Months ago, she would have said that would absolutely have been her response, but who was she kidding. There was no one reason to put on jeans, and cookies were one of the few joys left.

Rachel’s door closed.

Marie bent over and started to scoop the cat’s hard, sausage-like shits out of the litter box and into a crumpled up plastic bag. It was too late anyway. Rachel was in her room. She would spend the next few hours watching videos on Youtube or TikTok. In the before times, Marie didn’t have to monitor Rachel’s screen time, her kid had been far too busy working on her lines for the school play or doing her homework.

What if she didn’t get into college?

Marie tied the bag closed. Beans, the fluffy brown cat they had adopted from the animal shelter at the beginning of the year, trotted into the laundry room to check out his litter-box. Finding it clean, he ran his long body against Marie’s calves. She stroked his fur. It was the closest thing she got to a thank you these days.

Bag of shit in hand, she walked down the stairs to the foyer and slid on a pair of Jack’s flip-flops that were sitting by the door. Jack was only ten, but his shoes fit her feet perfect.

The last poem she had written was about Jack’s flip-flops. How his feet kept getting bigger. How he kept getting bigger, and she couldn’t stop it.

Themes. Style. The poetry world probably had an unkind word for middle-aged, suburban woman who wrote poetry about her children: saccharine, clichéd. They weren’t wrong. There was nothing about motherhood that she, Marie from Belleville, could possibly say that hadn’t been said before.

The excitement she had felt from the online seminar was starting to curdle. She felt like she often did in these moments: that she didn’t have a unique perspective on the world at all, that she was an interloper in the world of books and reading, and that she should, as quickly as possible, buy herself a t-shirt that said wine o’clock and curate her Pinterest boards while watching the Bachelorette. The thought made her feel small and translucent.

It was cold outside. The flip-flops did little against the cold. She was wearing thin sweatpants and a t-shirt. Her nipples, rebelling against the cold, pointed through the fabric. One arm across her chest, she jogged to the garbage can and dumped the garbage bag in the organics bin. In the bottom of the bin, she could see a few maggots wriggling around, clinging to life. Someone – her husband – had thrown old food directly into the bin without a bag. She would have to call waste management and have them sanitize the waste bins.

She wondered, as she returned to the house, if she really needed to do this. The maggots weren’t harming anyone. It was a waste bin. No one was expecting it to be sanitary. But she didn’t want anyone to notice. She didn’t want to become that lady with maggots in her garbage. To whom would it make a difference?

Was that the correct use of whom? She wasn’t sure. She slipped off her son’s flip-flops and walked across the cold hardwood floor to the kitchen. Someone had once said it was a pity that ‘whom’ was going out of fashion. That the ongoing whittling of the English language was restricting writers more-and-more to subject-verb-object sentences: I eat carrots. I is the subject. Eat is the verb. Object is the carrots. It had taken Marie a long time to figure that out. She wasn’t entirely convinced that it mattered, that the on-going whittling of the English language was, in fact, something she should concern herself with.

She turned on the tap and washed her hands for government-mandated 20-seconds. The soap she bought was purchased in bulk from Costco at the beginning of the pandemic. It was the last variety available. It smelled harshly of chemical green apple. She hated it, but wasting something like soap seemed cruel and ungrateful.

Her husband would get mad as well. Not that he would get mad mad. Bob was a mild-mannered man whose idea of rage was a disappointed shake of the head. Still, she doesn’t like to add to the stress. Like many other people, he lost his job. It was not a good time to be a city planner, not with construction slowed to a halt and projects deferred.

Marie turned off the tap. They were luckier than most. They had some savings and Marie had found part-time work answering calls from people and business confused about what kind of government assistance was available to them. Those calls put things in perspective. Mothers called looking for directions to the food bank so they could feed their children, apologizing as they did so, explaining it was their first time, that they were trying to get work.

Marie dried her hands on the clean towel. Thinking of food banks, of Bob and his ‘employment situation’ was like waking an angry barking dog inside of her. The dog was fear and it was barely restrained, ready to break free and ruin her carefully maintained garden of mental health.

Marie screwed up her eyes. This was she didn’t love metaphors. Fear wasn’t a barking dog. It was her hormones squirting chemicals into her bloodstream. This squirting was supposed to help her, but it was not.

Themes and style, she remembered, that’s what she had been thinking about. The poet had instructed them all to think about what they couldn’t say in their work, what ground their projects forbade them to tread simply by their nature. A Hallmark movie, for example, would not end in divorce. Marie thought there was a lot of ideas her work was incapable of exploring: mathematical axioms; the eight minutes and 48 seconds George Floyd spent on the ground, dying.

Marie stopped listing things. It didn’t seem right to put anything after George Floyd’s death. Her neighbourhood book club had decided to read How to Be an Anti-Racist at their last book club meeting. Jack and Rachel – seeing celebrities and kids their own age on social media taking to the streets – had insisting upon going to the marches, and Marie had insisted upon accompanying them. She carried her own Black Lives Matter sign, but she came more of out of a need to monitor her own children, than out of a desire to be part of the resistance. At first, she had been uncertain, both of her welcome and of the wisdom of protesting in a pandemic. Thoughts buzzed around like flies in her head: what if they all got each other sick? Am I too complicit to be here? What if things get violent?

But, she had neither been welcomed not rejected. She was drop in the sea of people who were walking through the streets. There was no violence. Everyone was masked. Children, too young to understand what was happening, sat atop their parent’s shoulders and occasionally clapped or squealed. She wondered, as she often did, what the protests looked like to the littlest children, what they understood the cacophony of shouts, cheers, signs, and people to be.

Despite the new reading list, her book club had not approved of Marie attending the march (dangerous, looting, etc.). Marie had learned something she thought be very important, which was that talking about property damage after someone was murdered was, at best, tone deaf, at worst, violence itself. It was one of those thoughts that seemed so obvious to her once she heard it, that she could hardly remember seeing the situation another way. Marie tried to share this with her book club, and it had not gone well.

They seemed to think that she was saying that she didn’t care at all about the looting and rioting. Marie tried to explain that it wasn’t that she didn’t care, it was just that she cared about people more than property, and they should keep the conversation centered on the harm done by police and white supremacy.

Her voice had shaken as she said this, partly because she was a nervous public speaker, but also because Bev’s husband was a police officer, and she could see the woman scowling, and because whenever anyone said ‘white supremacy’, Irene puffed up and threatened tears, acting like someone had accused her of trying to join the Third Reich.

Since she was in the kitchen, Marie pulled out the alfredo sauce and linguine from the cupboard. She opened the fridge. There was nothing in the fridge but containers of yogurt, cheese, and rows of condiments. Tomorrow, she would have to don a mask and brave the grocery story. She had always hated grocery shopping, and she despised it now. The freaks refusing to wear masks came too close to her in line, and the odd empty spaces on the shelves that made it feel like they were at the beginning of the end times.

Marie opened the freezer. The package of shrimp was sitting there, slightly freezer-burned. She had forgotten to transition it from freezer to fridge this morning. She swore to herself, took the package over to the sink and started to run it under cool water.

She thought about book club as the cold water ran over the shrimp and her hands. The conversation had devolved into an odd sort of pissing contest where each woman reiterated the horrible things their parents had said about Black people and how they felt scared to say the wrong thing now. Some of them cried. Marie looked around and came to the conclusion that there was not much to be gained from a bunch of white women whipping themselves up into a self-indulgent hysteria and suggested they read Transcendent Kingdom for their next book club pick. Perhaps, Marie thought, they would all do better with fiction.

She turned the water up. She knew she was supposed to defrost shrimp in cold water, but never understood why and she didn’t relish the thought of standing there for twenty minutes, her fingers in murky, cool water.

What we she supposed to be thinking about: Theme? Style? If Marie thought about it, she wouldn’t have been quite to remember the joy she had felt at the end of the seminar. Each emotional state restricts a person’s imagination. It is hard to remember joy when one is miserable and vise-versa. She wiped her damp hands on the cloth, then started to collect the ingredients: salt, chili peppers, pepper, olive oil.

It wasn’t that she was better than the women from book club. She was just less certain than they were about who she was and what was right even though she supposed that, at 56, she should have worked all of that out. Their certainty pounded against her like hail, stinging and confusing her. Irene, for example, was so certain she was a good person with a good heart. Marie was never certain whether she herself was right and good.

The shrimp were defrosted. She started to unpeel the them, pulling the crusty shell off of each one and dropping them into a glass bowl that held chili flakes, oil, and cilantro.

Sometimes, she thought of her children as old people, sixty, or, god-willing, eighty years in the future. Obviously, she would be dead. They would be nearing the end of their lives. It was weird that she would not be there with them for decades potentially. That they would have years of life and she simply wouldn’t know about them. That they would get sick and die and she wouldn’t be there to help them. Sometimes, she worried herself by wondering if, by the time they got to heaven, they would even recognize one another. The thought made her want to cry.

Her phone buzzed. The red CNN logo just visible. 200,000 thousand Americans had died from COVID-19. She stood in the kitchen, her hands cold and wet from the shrimp she had been peeling. Her screen went black. The update disappearing like it had never been there at all.

“Mom, is dinner ready?” Rachel yelled from her room.

Marie jumped like her daughter had just prodded her with a cattle prod. Marie cleared her throat and dried her hands on the crumpled tea towel.

“30 minutes, sweetie,” she called back.

“OK.”

Rachel’s door shut again. From the living room, Marie could hear the swoosh of lightsabers coming from the living room. Jack was watching Star Wars again. Bob was in his office, she knew, looking for jobs with more-and-more desperation. Last time she was cleaning in his office, he had left his computer on, and she had seen an application for a position as a Claims Adjuster at an Insurance Company. He had been Regional Manager of Consumer Marketing for a large national movie chain before the virus, and he had loved his job. He had always loved movies and television.

On their first date, he had taken her to a drive-in. She couldn’t remember the movie now, but she remembered that he had known everything: who the director was, who the writer was, the producer, and all their previous works. She never paid attention to that stuff and was impressed by his passion.

He did not, as far as she knew, love insurance.

She put the shrimp in the pan and pushed them around with a wooden spoon she had bought on a whim from Williams Sonoma back when they could afford to splurge on things like that.

The oil hissed and popped. She was probably cooking it at too-high a temperature, but she didn’t care. For a moment, she wanted to burn dinner, if only because she wanted to burn something.

She turned the heat down, measured out some rice, water and salt and set it to boil in a separate pot. Not in any mood to make salad, she poured some frozen peas into a microwave-safe bowl and filled it with water. That would have to do.

She dried her hands again and picked up her phone. The CNN news banner was still there, reminding her of the death toll. Her finger hovered about it. It felt like her duty, as a citizen, to read the article, but what more was there to say than was already written in the headline. People were dying because of selfish people led by a selfish man.

She had a friend on Facebook, a Trump supporter who, after posting multiple mask-related conspiracy theories, received a barrage of critical messages. She beseeched her Facebook friends to ‘look at her heart’ and treat her with respect and then moments later posted a meme claiming pro-choice Democrats wanted to kill babies.

They were no longer friends. Trying to be friends with someone like that was like trying to befriend a cartoon, there were too many layers of ridiculousness to work through. Still, it was one less friend. A friend Marie had known since high school. Those were hard, perhaps impossible, to replace.

Marie sighed. Theme and style, that was what she was supposed to be thinking of, wasn’t it?

Jack came in from the living room, the movie still playing, and took a swig of milk from the carton.

“Honey, use a glass,” Marie said automatically.

“We all share the same DNA,” he said in that petulant manner of teenage boys who think they know everything.

Marie didn’t protest further. If she had learned anything other the past few months, it was how to pick her battles.

“Dinner will be ready soon,” she said.

He passed her and gave her a kiss on the cheek, smiling sheepishly when she looked at him with surprise.

“I’ll get Rachel,” he said, disappearing out of the room as fast as he came.

She listened to his feet thump up the stairs and opened her phone. The Belleville Writer’s Collective was offering another writing workshop next weekend. The guest author had been short-listed for the National Book Award, so Marie assumed they were talented (Marie had their book on her shelf, but had not had time to actually read it).

She wouldn’t have time to read the book before the workshop, though she would try. She likely would not have time to work out what she thought about theme and style or whatever it was she was supposed to be thinking about (the words from the first workshop were already starting to fade from memory).

She clicked the enrol button. She put her phone down and stirred the shrimp.

Sara lives in Toronto with her fiancée and cat. She has previously been published in the York Literary Review and Tishman Review and others. When not writing, she enjoys reading, running, and planning vacations she can no longer take.

Anti-racist resources, because silence is not an option

Although each of Jenny Offill’s books is great, this is the one we come back to, both to reread and to gift. Funny and thoughtful and true, this little gem moves through the feelings of a betrayed woman in a series of observations. The writing is beautiful, and the structure is intelligent and moving, and well worth a read.

Order the book from Amazon or Bookshop.org

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Anti-racist resources, because silence is not an option

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Fiction, Fiction Fridays, Gender & Sexuality, Guest Posts

Can’t

July 16, 2021
christine

By Lauren Anton

You’re turning thirteen tomorrow. It’s time to act like it.

She looked around her pink and white bedroom. Pink: her favorite color. Her journal, also pink, with a picture of a pretty little girl on it, surrounded by flowers. She had gotten her period, as if on cue, the day before. When she went to tell her mother, she had handed a pad to her, unceremoniously. Her dad had hugged her for no reason that morning.

It was all pretty awkward. But still. She took the event and her upcoming birthday as a sign that things needed to change.

No more being loud. No more tomboy. You need to be quiet and pretty.

She thought back to the times when she would hang out with Natalie, prowling the mall for guys.

At least that’s what Natalie was doing.

“Did you see that guy?”

Never.

“He’s so cute! I think he was looking at me.”

According to Natalie, they always were.

They would then follow the guy (or guys) around, while she became increasingly more anxious, when she would eventually duck into a bookstore to read magazines, not books. She was trying to figure out how to be a pretty girl who attracts boys. She would stand there for an hour, waiting for Natalie to be done with her guy-hunting, reading magazines like Seventeen, Vogue, and Cosmopolitan not for enjoyment, but for the task of research.

It didn’t seem to sink in.

No matter how many quizzes she took, she didn’t naturally have the eye that Natalie – and all the pretty girls in her class – had.

Even if she did attract a boy, she didn’t know what to do. She liked her guy friends in class, but never seemed to like the guys that she was told were “looking” at her.

She felt that she had been left behind in fifth grade, when they had “Family Life” – sex ed in Catholic school. She had hidden behind her book when they learned about “intercourse,” lest she make eye contact with any other human being.

“Intercourse” was defined as “a man placing his penis in the woman’s vagina, with the hopeful outcome of conception of a new human life, within a loving marriage.” The book went on to say that it was a “precious gift from God” and was to be “held with the deepest respect.”

Meaning never done outside of marriage.

The daydreams, as she called them, started when the “Family Life” classes started. She would spend hours fantasizing about being a boy in a relationship with a girl, having sex with her, getting married, having a family. Her imagination was expansive, which was important, as she didn’t know that girls could masturbate.

She thought only boys could do that.

In fact, the book had been so centered on the penis and ejaculation (and other words that made her want to die when she heard them), she didn’t realize girls could have an orgasm and that there was something called a clitoris.

She had no clue about her own body.

And so the daydreams where she was a boy having sex with a girl continued for over two years.

The penis was all she knew.

Her pen hovered and then drove into the paper.

You need to stop these daydreams.

Her sexual fantasies that she called daydreams because she didn’t know what sexual fantasies were or that she could have them.

She didn’t know why she had the daydreams. She just knew she couldn’t stop and found her mind on them, not even realizing how long she had been thinking about it. She just knew they were bad and had to stop. She had to find a way.

She remembered what happened two years ago in her pink and white room on her frilly twin bed. Her cheeks burned with the shame.

They had just started “Family Life” and her friend Christine had come over to spend the night. It had been a normal visit, nothing noteworthy. Dinner, playing games up in her room, talking, until her mother had told her it was time to get ready for bed.

When the lights were off, they continued to talk, as ten-year-old girls do, in the dim light of the nightlight.

The topic of “Family Life” came up and how embarrassing it was.

But she wasn’t feeling embarrassed.

She was feeling…like she did in the daydream.

“We should practice.”

Christine was nervous about this so she offered that they could leave out the kissing. She was secretly bummed by this but realized that compromise was needed.

And so, she lived out her daydream in her pink bed, in her pink and white room. At ten years old.

She didn’t know she could float, but she did.

When her eyes were woken by the sun shining through the split in the curtains, she looked over at her friend, still asleep. She shifted to her side to watch the ray of sun creep up Christine’s body under the covers, her blonde hair in wisps around her face, until at last the sun reached her eyes. She blinked herself awake.

“Morning.” She smiled.

“Hey.”

Christine immediately got up, taking her change of clothes in the bathroom. Her stomach had a tiny pang of fear which she quickly shoved away and instead got dressed, taking her cue from Christine.

When Christine came back in the room, she sat on the edge of the bed, her gaze on the floor. She sat beside her, a respectful three feet away. Her body sent off alarm bells.

“What we did last night was wrong. We should never do it again.”

There was a moment when she couldn’t really see and her stomach dropped to the floor. She thought she was going to faint.

Christine looked at her, expectantly. Waiting for her response.

The right response.

“Yeah…yeah…” She trailed off, her head nodding slowly.

“OK. Yeah. Let’s never do it again.”

You can’t do that. It’s disgusting.

Her pen dug into the paper of her journal, almost ripping it.

Turning thirteen would need to involve an entire personality overhaul.

And her sexuality would be the first order of business.

Lauren Anton is a registered dietitian specializing in eating disorders by day and a writer by night. She is a mom to her beautiful 8-year-old son, who is a constant teacher of what it is to be in love with life, feeling everything so, so fully. She enjoys hiking, yoga, piano, and her little rescue poodle, Bernie.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~


Although each of Jenny Offill’s books is great, this is the one we come back to, both to reread and to gift. Funny and thoughtful and true, this little gem moves through the feelings of a betrayed woman in a series of observations. The writing is beautiful, and the structure is intelligent and moving, and well worth a read.

Order the book from Amazon or Bookshop.org

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Anti-racist resources, because silence is not an option

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Family, Fiction, Fiction Fridays, Guest Posts

The Expression of It

July 9, 2021
Blake

by André Narbonne

Blake stood on the wooden steps leading to our house, in plain view but away just the same. His clenched fist was covered in blood, my blood, although the fact hadn’t occurred to us yet. I was still stunned by the lunacy of his anger, astonished by the blow that must have come out of a desire to knock down not just his younger brother but something bigger.

The air was strangely comical. It chirped. Clouds fled the veranda exposing Blake and me to the naked glare of the sun.

I pulled myself up. I spat, “I hate you,” brushed the dirt and broken fingers of leaves off my jacket, became aware of the red stain on my shoulder and chest. Rubbing a hand against my face, I held out a thick streak of blood.

“There,” I said.

That opened him. He stared at me and he bit his lower lip, and I knew that he was aware of having hurt me.

It had never happened before.

Blake was four years older and he understood what that meant, recognized that being older was more a duty than an inconvenience. It wasn’t that we didn’t fight. We fought like brothers, which is to say almost daily. Whenever we ran out of words, we came out swinging, but Blake’s hardest cuts had a knack for missing. They were chivalrously errant. He fought like a friend, allowing me to lose by exhaustion.

So we were both astonished by what had happened, by the blow that was meant to injure.

We weren’t alone in our surprise. There was a third to our party. Mr. Bryant, who lived in the trailer across the street, stood on the edge of the lawn shifting his balance between clown-sized feet as though he were himself sparring with something unseen. Beneath a feral tangle of red hair his beet-red nose and blood-shot cheeks mapped with broken capillaries marked him as a heavy drinker. He was our father’s best friend (a fact that had never caused him to treat Blake and me with anything but contempt).

He bellowed, “You’re awful.”

Awful, what did he mean by that? Did he imagine himself watching theatre? “Both of you:  stop it now.” As if we hadn’t, as if the punch that threw me three feet hadn’t been conclusive.

I gather Blake still held some of his rage because he uttered a word I had never heard him speak before. He said, “Go fuck yourself,” and Mr. Bryant spun on his heel and headed across the street to his house, moving with the heavy, purposeful stride of a clown bent on retaliation.

When he was gone, Blake turned to me and asked in a trembling voice, “Is it broken? Let me see.”

“It hurts.”

He walked to me and touched my face, gauged its symmetry. “Nope, it’s okay,” he concluded. “I’m sorry, Matt. I don’t know what happened.  I lost it.”

I was crying, but not from pain. “You don’t detest me?”

“I don’t detest you. Let’s not talk about him anymore. You don’t understand.  Even if I told you, you couldn’t.”

He smiled a nervous smile. I returned the same. And then Blake went back to the house. The veranda creaked under his weight; the screen door pitched and then rattled back into place. And he was gone for real.

I heard the phone ringing. Someone was waking up Dad.

They were both my protectors, Blake and my father, although Dad was an uncertain presence in the house.

My father worked the graveyard shift and had a graveyard cast of mind. He seldom spoke except to command. During the week he allowed himself to be shirtless and unkempt until an hour before work when he shaved and made himself up. He was fit for forty but that was largely an accident of genetics, I supposed.  He lived for no other purpose than to make money it seemed. With that money the three of us carried on our indifferent lives in an isolated mining town that was on its last vein. I wondered sometimes whether it was the impact of my mother, Marlene’s, defection that had knocked him into silence, but the truth was I could not remember him living any other way. He was a silent man.

The year my mother left Blake was just fourteen. He was handsome, the most handsome boy in school, but he didn’t date. All his energy went into raising me. He was the family cook. He ordered the cleaning, demanded my room be neat and my laundry kept in its basket. He helped me with homework and bullies, even though he wasn’t big.  But something was wrong with him.

Blake had changed a lot even before my mother left, had gone into intolerable lapses of…what?—just lapses. He thought deeply about things I hadn’t considered. He told me once that he detested every person he knew at some time—but not all of the time. Even people he loved, he detested. The trick for him was not to act on his feelings. Even if he loathed someone he had to wait until he could find value in the person again or he knew he’d be friendless. He said that was why he didn’t have a girlfriend. He was too afraid of how he’d behave if he found himself in love with someone and discovered he detested her.  He thought it would make him hate himself.

“That doesn’t make sense,” I told him, confidently adding, “You don’t detest me.”

“No,” he shot back. “Never mind. I hope you never understand.”

The window was open. I heard my father’s terse, “Yeah.” There was a pause. I saw Blake at the living room window. He was closed again. He had that look. “Oh yeah, hi, Bill.” It was Mr. Bryant. He’d called to exact his clown revenge. I knew Blake could hear the conversation, too. He picked up the camping picture on the bookshelf, eyed it carefully as though for clues. It was the only picture of the whole family that was kept out, taken shortly before my mother left.

It framed our parents on either side of us, as far away from each other as possible while still remaining in focus. Blake and I had fish—were the glowing champions of something inconsequential. My mother’s smile encouraged interpretation.

Her departure, sudden and mysterious, was treated at first with supreme calm. Joined in purpose, my father and Blake cleaned the house. They scrubbed in silence for an entire weekend. I gathered they wanted to wipe away all trace of my mother’s presence.

It wasn’t just that she was gone. She would never return. They seemed to know that right away.

A tense silence held court in every room. I knew that something terrible was in the offing. I was frightened of the looks Blake and Dad manufactured for each other.  They were constructing hatred. That was the expression of it. They were both trying to be the adult in the house: my father by working himself to exhaustion and bringing back money to a home he was too tired to inhabit, Blake by working as an adult at home and by pretending that his lack of responsibility elsewhere had no bearing on his maturity.

It wasn’t long after Mom left that Dad warned me in a hushed conversation, “I want you to watch out for Blake. He’s not right. You can’t trust him.”

“Why not?”

“He’s a born liar. He says things. Don’t believe them.”

At first I didn’t understand. But then, one night, Blake lied to me in a way that proved Father right.

It was the beginning of a northern autumn and a wolf had gotten onto our island. Probably it had crossed the single bridge that connected our scrap of Precambrian Shield to the rest. However it arrived, two dogs were dead on their leashes in the morning.

In the evening, I couldn’t sleep. Animal noises in the dark, a single unrestrained bark in our narrow hall: it occurred to me that the wolf was inside.

I called for Blake but he didn’t answer so I clutched the blankets around my face.  Still those noises. Wolf anger. Animal contempt. It sounded muffled like the wolf didn’t want to be heard. Finally it ended.  Silence held the dark and the dark was an animal, too.

I was almost asleep when a soft squeak told me someone was opening the bedroom door.

“Blake?”

“Why are you awake?”

“I think the wolf was in the house. I heard him.”

More silence.

“Blake?”

“It’s not a wolf. I heard it, too. I checked.”

“What was it?”

“The pipes. Someone left the toilet running.”

I felt relieved. And then I remembered what my father had said. I couldn’t trust him. Trust him with what?

And even though there was no wolf in the house I wondered about the dogs on their leashes, facing an impossible beast.

And then I saw it, the anger Blake and my father held for each other and my role in their war. It came upon me stupidly, but I grasped it.

I hurt myself playing. I frustrated myself with a cap gun that had no pop. Despite the triviality of my trouble, I walked into the house with real tears streaming down my face. Blake and my father sat in opposition at the kitchen table. My father jumped up first. He said, “What’s wrong? Are you all right?” His concern had a dangerous quality about it; I detected fear.

“My gun doesn’t work.”

“Show me. Give it to me.” I handed him the gun. He checked the barrel and fired a dud round. I could see him considering my toy sternly when Blake reached over and tore the gun from his grip.

“I know about these. I’ll fix it.”

“Give it back.”

“I know about these. When was the last time you fired one?”

And then, as though in a comic ballet, they wrestled with the gun. I watched them in stunned silence, fighting over a plastic weapon that had become real in some way. Blake was agile. With a sudden motion, he slipped the gun out of my father’s hands and escaped the house into the woods where he remained until after supper. When he returned, he had no gun. I don’t know what he did with it, but I never saw it again.

I didn’t cry over its loss. It had occurred to me in a flash exactly what they were up to. They were protecting me from each other. That’s how they managed. They were both able to continue through this horrible disaster of which I was only dimly aware, the devastating consequences for Blake of losing his mother, for Dad of losing his dignity, because they had thrown their identities into the task of guarding me and of making sure I didn’t grow up to be like the other man or boy who pretended to authority.

“What!” My father’s voice thundered through the window. “He said what?”

I watched Blake slide the picture from its frame. Where was he? His fingers fumbled with the glass, which fell and broke on the floor. I thought I knew what he would do next.  I thought he would tear the picture into fragments.

He didn’t. He put it carefully into his pocket to save it from what was approaching.

Watching him in his quiet actions I was overcome with guilt. I had goaded him into our fight.  I was the one who told him to stop fighting with Dad. I told him that he was unfair, that if he just did what Dad told him to do instead of always fighting the house would be fine. It was his fault, I said, that we were in a perpetual state of turmoil.

“You don’t know what you’re talking about.”

“I know everything that goes on. I know how you two fight. I hear you in the morning when Dad gets off work.”

“Shut up.  You don’t hear anything.”

“I do.  I know everything.”

“Shut up.”

“It’s your fault. It’s always been your fault. You’re why Mom left. You’re always complaining and fighting with everyone.  Why can’t you just…”

Something happened then. He’d been bringing his hands to his ears, but they never made it.  Instead, he lunged at me. I heard the crack of contact, felt myself lifted into a sky that tasted like blood. Blake retreated to the steps, perhaps to protect me from himself. For a good two minutes, no-one moved.

“He did what!”

The hallway pounded back against my father’s steps. I saw how Blake waited, saw that he was afraid, and I understood.

I would be afraid, too. My father had a reason at last to lay a beating on his deviant son. I felt the horror of the situation. I discovered in an instant how pitiable we were: all three of us.

Even as I reached the veranda I could hear the first blow landing, that hideous consonance of fist on flesh. I tore at the door. It slammed open. Then I was between them, breathless. Blake was on the floor, his face already bloodied. My father stood with fists of steel.  His face was mottled red in his rage. “Out of my way,” he cried.

“No!”

“Get out of my way, Matt. He needs to know he can’t hurt you.”

“No!”

Blake struggled to his feet. He whispered, “It’s okay, Matt. Let him come.” He raised his fists weakly.

There were tears in my eyes. I turned on my father. “This was our fight. Not yours. I started it. You don’t have the right to do this when I’m as much to blame. If you’re going to hit Blake, you have to hit me, too.”

He seemed staggered by my words.

I lowered my hands to my sides deliberately. “Hit me,” I said. “I won’t let you do anything to Blake that you wouldn’t do to me.”

“You don’t know what you’re saying,” Blake cried. “For God’s sake, don’t say that. You don’t understand.”

But my father did. His lower lip trembled. He began to shake.

“Do to me what you did to Blake.”

My father turned from me. A sound came from his mouth that I couldn’t understand, a wordless breath of horror. He fled the house.

My father came home late that night and held Blake in a hushed conference. After that day, they did not fight. My father seemed to guard himself against me as though I held the power to hurt him. Blake became more withdrawn. Shortly after his eighteenth birthday he left the house. A year later he left town. He wrote to me for a few years. He was a waiter in a Toronto hotel, but he lost the job to his drinking. I didn’t know he was a drug addict until his drugs almost killed him at twenty-four. He overdosed at a house party. He wasn’t dead but he looked dead, so his best friend dragged him out into the snow to hide the body. He died of exposure.

I had already left my father’s house for university two years before Blake’s death.  I would come back to visit on a monthly basis, then on weekends after the funeral, because he seemed to need me more. Even so, my relationship with my father was subdued and mysterious. I could not fathom his aloofness.

And I often wondered about my mother’s disappearance. I had not seen her since I was nine; she didn’t attend Blake’s funeral. Could I believe that she hated her life with us so much that she left forever, leaving everything behind? Or did she wonder about the fights between my father and Blake that made no real sense? Did she ever hear one of their secret fights, as I did, while playing spies as a child? They were at odds in the bathroom with the door locked. I never heard words, just noises, like their complaint wasn’t with each other but with themselves and their own natures. I can’t imagine what happened next if she did.

André Narbonne is a Windsor, Ontario writer. Since 2011 his writing has seen publication in Prairie Fire, The Dalhousie Review, The Nashwaak Review, FreeFall, Wascana Review, CV2, Antigonish Review, Rampike, Windsor Review, Numéro Cinq, and carte blanche.

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emma

Stories of parent/child relationships can be complex, and Emma’s Laugh, The Gift of  Second Chances, is no exception.  Convinced of her inability to love her “imperfect” child and give her the best care and life she deserved, Diana gave Emma up for adoption. But as with all things that are meant to be, Emma found her way back home. As Emma grew, Diana watched her live life determinedly and unapologetically, radiating love always. Emma evolved from a survivor to a warrior, and the little girl that Diana didn’t think she could love enough rearranged her heart. In her short eighteen years of life, Emma gifted her family the indelible lesson of the healing and redemptive power of love.

Read Diana’s ManifestStation essay here

Order the book from Amazon or Bookshop.org

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Anti-racist resources, because silence is not an option

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Click here for all things Jen

Fatherhood, Fiction, Fiction Fridays, Guest Posts

Father’s Day

June 18, 2021
poppa

By Shirley Dees

We’re going to visit James’ dad again. Before we leave I manage to squeeze a few moments alone in the bathroom of the duplex James and I rent and hang my head over the cheap, cushioned toilet seat, the kind that keeps your ass from hurting while you’re doing your business, and try not to puke while James stands outside the door. The timing of this year’s trip is a real bitch. He’s been dead for ten years, and every Father’s Day, James and I drive out to the cemetery to stand next to his headstone with James’ Poppa and talk about nothing. I never met him, but since I started dating James six years ago, I tag along.

“Leah, you about ready?” James is in a hurry. That’s what all of this is, really. A dreadful hurry.

“Can you give me a skinny minute?” I am surprised to find I can open my mouth without vomiting. Things are looking up.

“A small one. I hate to make Poppa wait.”

I stand up and move over to the sink. I study my face for obvious hints of morning sickness and add a touch of makeup. I don’t want his grandfather to be put out, either, so I try to hurry. “Is your Poppa feeling good enough to drive today?”

“Larry is taking him,” James says. His voice comes through the bathroom door like it’s worn down by hammers. I give myself one last scan, one last breath to steady this awkward and hurried day, and open the door.

“Okay, let’s go.” I walk by quickly without giving James the chance to get a real look at me. I am running out of time to tell him about the baby. I love him, which only makes all of this more complicated. He pulls the car keys off the hook hanging by the backdoor as I throw my purse over my shoulder. I feel him behind me, staring at the door, doing his yearly hesitation.

“James,” I begin, “we don’t have to go if you don’t want to.” He grabs the door handle to pull it open.

“It’s Father’s Day, Leah. You know I have to go.” Before I can ask again, he’s outside, feet crunching the gravel as he walks to his Ford Ranger. “Come on,” he says.

Every year, I try to cruise through this day with a level of indifference to make it all sort of just disappear, but every time I see the scars on the back of James’ head, that indifference melts into protective anger. I want him to know he is the one in control now. But I’ve learned not to push the issue. I offer to stay home in his seconds of hesitation by the backdoor, just to remind him the option is always on the table, but he always declines, stating it’s his duty to go. After all this time, I don’t really expect anything different anymore.

I climb into the steamy, black truck we share to get to and from work, each of us alternating with co-workers and carpooling when we can. We never drive it more than fifteen miles in a day so this is the truck’s longest journey every year at 60 miles, and I wonder how much longer it will last. James always says we’ll drive it until the wheels fall off, but I don’t think we can make it until then. This truck is twenty years old and suddenly too small. I crank the window and let the air hit my face, praying to God I don’t have to throw up on the way there.

Pretty soon we’re pulling out of town and the annual tour of my boyfriend’s childhood horrors begins. When he first told me about the abuse, it rolled off him the same way it does now. Ritualized. The Dairy Queen they met at for his dad’s public visits. The house where his dad used to live with Larry, an old friend and now Poppa’s neighbor, and the place James went when his dad was finally allowed overnight custody. This house was the one with the stairs whose pointy edges lead down to a wooden floor. The stairs and floor that birthed the scars on the back of my boyfriend’s head. He points them all out, every time. I’ve come to see them as his demons, evilness that must be excised regularly to keep them away, the reason for all this hurried dreadfulness. There must be a better way to heal, for everyone.

The heat-scorched Texas earth zips by as we cruise down the highway at the fastest speed the Ranger allows: sixty-three miles per hour, which means it will takes us an hour to make the trip. This is easy math that I keep in my mind to help make this day seem simpler, but one look out my window at the speeding ground and my head spins.

“We’ll stop in McKinney and get a bite to eat, that okay?” he asks like this isn’t what we always do. Normally, the stop in McKinney is the highlight of the day. They have this burger joint where the burgers are so juicy, they soak through the paper that lines those red, plastic baskets. The French fries are cooked in oil and bubbled until they’re perfectly golden and crispy, the ketchup salty and tangy on the lips. Food so good it makes you want to slap your granny. But today, just the thought of those greasy burgers makes me want to dry-heave, so I push it away and curl my legs underneath my hind-end.

James glances at me from the side. “What’s up?”

“I don’t know, maybe we can try some place else this time.”  I look straight ahead, keeping my sour face out of view. A car screams by us on the left, a red convertible of some type. I’ve never bothered much with learning car brands and models, but sometimes I’ll take a guess at what it is to impress James. He whistles as the car switches back into the right lane, ahead of us.

“Damn, must be nice,” he sighs. I give a little silent shout of praise to the owner of the sport car for pulling James’s attention off my lack of an appetite. I know we’ll probably stop there and eat anyway, because there is nothing else in McKinney. Maybe I can get away with scarfing a small quarter-pounder and puking in the restaurant’s commode before we get back on the road.

“Your Poppa still going out to the cemetery every day?” I ask.

“He doesn’t like driving much anymore so he only gets out there when Larry can take him.”

“I didn’t realize he wasn’t driving anymore,” I say, pausing a moment to let a passing thought linger. “What’s he going to do with that truck of his?”

“The man’s got to get to the grocery store and what not. He’s just not driving anywhere long distance.”

“I wouldn’t call fifteen miles to the cemetery long distance.” Immediately I recoil, guilt pinching at my insides.

“Yeah, but to get there he’s got to get on the highway.”   

“Oh, I didn’t think about that.” I realize I’m coming off like I’ve been waiting for Poppa to slide his big toe inside the old folks’ home to transfer the title to his vehicle into James’ name.

“You want to take his truck?”

“Well, no I just . . . I don’t know.”

“That’s Poppa’s vehicle, Leah.” James’ voice takes on that condescending tone that sends tethers of defensive coils up the back of my neck.

“I know.”

“Man ain’t quit driving more than a month and you’re already thinking him some kind of invalid.”

“No, James.”

“Claiming his property.” James shakes his head and disappointment spreads over him along with the crinkles that set into the corners of his eyes when his temper has run out of fuse.

“That’s not it at all.” I keep my voice calm in hopes to steer him back towards sanity.

“We have a truck, Leah.”

“I know.”

“We ain’t ever had a problem with it. But my Poppa gets old and you start seeing money bags.”

“I wasn’t thinking about taking your Poppa’s truck, James.” His knuckles tighten on the steering wheel and I know I need to get control. “You know me better than that. I just don’t want him giving it away without talking to you about it first. You know how some people will take advantage of Poppa.”

“Hmm,” he keeps his eyes on the road but I both hear and see his suspicion. He is trying to keep his temper in check and keep his demons tightly roped inside. “Okay, just sounded like you had other intentions.”

“Please don’t put words in my mouth.” Another car zooms past and there goes his focus, just like that. A little flame of frustration still flickers away in my mind but I swallow again to try and put it out. My temper is on a shortened leash today, too. I can’t handle the accusing tone he gives me all the time when stuff like this comes up. We fight about the most stupid things like any normal couple, but mostly we argue about the future. He believes he’s doomed to repeat the mistakes of his father. James ain’t ever hurt me. Not physically, anyway. We’ve had our bickering, and he’s gotten in my face a time or two, but it never goes any farther than that. It’s like a spark, something goes wrong and he snaps into anger, a few harsh words come flying out of his mouth without thinking and then his face fills with remorse. It’s what I point out to him all the time the minute I know he recognizes it.

“You see,” I say, never backing away. “That’s why you ain’t like your daddy, James. You have awareness.”

I think that’s why I haven’t left yet, because I can see past those crinkles of anger and deeper than the illness that’s cursed his genetic line. Awareness. It’s been like this since we first got together and I’ve just put up with it because I love him deeply. I’ve never asked for a ring, but I’m pregnant now and it ain’t just our future anymore.

The miles speed by in silence. Pretty soon, we’re pulling into McKinney and I see the burger joint up the road. My stomach is feeling okay, so this may not be so bad after all. In fact, as we walk in, I’m ravenous. I scarf my burger and inhale the fries. I want all the Coke that’s in the soda machine and then I order a chocolate milkshake to go. James wants to share, and I oblige, even though I don’t see why he can’t just order his own damn ice cream.

“You know, Dad used to buy us ice cream from here,” James says as we walk back to the truck.

I perk up. “Oh really?” James has never mentioned this before.

“It tastes the same now as it did then.” He reaches over and grabs the cup from my hands and pulls a mouthful of shake from the straw. “Then I got sick one time and threw up in his car and he beat me so bad I couldn’t sit down for a week.” He semi-slams the paper cup in the holder on the dash and angrily turns the key. Gravel shoots off from the Ranger’s tires as we pull out of the parking lot and are back on the highway again, heading towards complications. Maybe it’s my shortened temper, but for the first time in the six years of this annual trip, I get upset with James for this outburst and let out an irritated sigh.

“Oh, Jesus Christ, James.”

“What’s wrong with you?” he says, turning his entire head towards me.

“Nothing,” I say, crossing my arms.

“Don’t pull that.”

“I’m tired of this damn stuff every year,” I spit out. “We drive these terrible sixty miles and the entire time you talk about all the bullshit he pulled when you were growing up, and then by the time we get there, you’re all angry and pissy with me and Poppa and the whole thing just sucks.”

“Well, Christ, what do you want me to do about it? Not go? Poppa’d kill me if I didn’t come out here every year,” he keeps his eyes on the road and I can tell he’s trying to control his temper again.

“No, all I’m saying is, well, don’t you think you can at least try and think of something good? I know it couldn’t have been rainbows and peaches with the man, but there had to be something. Maybe if you think of something good instead of all the awful, you won’t be in such a foul mood by the time we get out to the cemetery, and then Poppa won’t get on you about being a grump, and I don’t know, we can finally spend Father’s Day in some peace.”

James doesn’t say anything for a hot minute. He passes a car on the left and then switches back over to the right lane.

“You’re not being fair,” he says.

“Ain’t I?”

“There ain’t nothing good I can talk about.”

“Bullshit.” I try to dig for a specific moment, but nothing is coming to mind under pressure, and I start to panic.

“I said there’s nothing,” his grip tightens on the wheel again. I cross my arms and start to run through holidays and moments that could spark a memory, any memory that was positive, but it was pointless. James hates Christmas for reasons I know stem from his dad. His family was poorer than mine so trips anywhere as a kid were a pipe dream, but I’m desperate. I have to keep the stack from wobbling too far off course into a dangerous area.

“James,” I start to say, my voice soft and flat. “Come on, tell me something good.” He says nothing, his eyes with that tempered glaze. I ignore the feeling in the pit of my stomach. “Come on.”

“No!” His wrist hits the steering wheel and the truck swerves, the car next to us honks, but I don’t think James hears him, or cares. “There isn’t any good stuff. There never was!” His voice bounces off the windshield and the passenger window. I pushed too far, but it was too late to try and reverse course. I might as well keep steering this messed-up ride on my own course.

“I don’t believe that,” I say.

James groans. “You’re being damn difficult.”

“You can’t blame me for wanting my boyfriend to remember decent things about his father.”

“I just don’t see why it’s so important to you.”

“I think it’s important for you, James.”

“I don’t.”

“So we disagree, but I still want you to try.”

“I have tried.” James says this with a touch less anger, and it saddens me because I know it’s true. But I push on.

“Try harder,” I say.

“You don’t understand.” He shakes his head.

“James, I can’t believe your father didn’t love you.”

He doesn’t say anything for a while, but I keep my eyes on him, studying the muscles in his face. I take his silence as him going to those depths, to find something he’d kept shoved at the bottom of his soul, buried in the darkness.

“He didn’t love me,” he says.

“How are you so sure?”

“Because. . . I didn’t love him.”

“James. . . .”

“You wanted the truth, Leah, so there it is. Though, I don’t know why you haven’t figured out any of this before. My dad broke something in me long ago. Love like that, it ain’t possible, alright? Not for me. There ain’t no good left.”

“But how can you say that when I’m sitting here right next to you? I mean, you love me, don’t’ you?”

“That’s different.”

“No it ain’t. Love is love, James.”

“Like shit it is.”

“You know what I mean.”

“Yeah, well…” he breaks off into a silence.

“What’re you trying to say?” My stomach rumbles. A wave of nausea hits me and the road swerves, but James’ hands are tight on the wheel. I grab the dashboard to keep the earth from flipping upside down. “You can’t love anyone else?”

No answer. His silence is like a scythe. Heat pulses across my body, a salty sickness creeping its way into my mouth. The Ranger jumps a slab of buckled asphalt and suddenly I have to vomit. No time to ask him to pull over, I slam my hand on the window crank and lower the glass just enough to poke my head through and unleash the juicy burger and fries on the side of the highway at 58 miles per hour.

“Leah!”

I pull my head back inside and roll the window up. I pop open the glove box and pull out one of the hundreds of restaurant napkins we keep stashed in there. “Sorry, must have gotten car sick.”

“Car sick? You ain’t ever gotten car sick before.”

I wipe my mouth and lean my head back against the seat, closing my eyes. My stomach feels lighter, calmer, but my heart is beating too hard, sadness spilling from its chambers and spreading through the inside of the Ranger. “Well, I guess there’s a first time for everything.”

I consider a couple of options. I could cry and tell him I’m pregnant and everything else that is on my mind. Or I could ask him to pull over and let me out, find a way back home and pack up my stuff and leave. Problem is, neither of those options really solve the problem. There’s still a life growing inside me.

Fatigue falls on me like rain so I close my eyes, the sun on my face and shoulders failing to comfort me the way a blanket would a tired baby. I want to sleep and figure I can because James clearly isn’t in the mood to talk anymore, and to be honest, neither am I.

***

I didn’t notice when the truck stopped. I didn’t even realize I had fallen into such a deep sleep. James shakes me and I see his face as I open my eyes, close to mine, holding a cup of Sprite to my lips.

“You feeling alright?” He actually looks concerned, all of the glaze and crinkles gone from his eyes. Fatigue melts into affection as I stare into those honey irises and feel their devotion. I don’t know why he thinks he isn’t capable of love.

“I’m okay. We here already?”

“Yeah, but Poppa ain’t yet. Come on, take a sip of the soda.”

I grab the cup from him and place the straw between my teeth. I sit up and look out. The cemetery is empty, the grass a light brown, thin and withering into dust. There isn’t a single cloud in the sky and I feel the heat radiating off the marble and concrete headstones from inside the Ranger. I pull a sip of soda from the straw.

“You want to wait here for Poppa?” I ask.

“No, let’s just go on over. He should be here in a minute.” James pops open his door and steps out, so I follow. Caliche rocks poke the thin bottoms of my flip flops and I regret the decision to wear them. The sticker burrs in this dead grass are going to tear my feet to hell. We start walking to the gravesite, one of my hands firmly on the soda as I suck in more of the cold liquid. A pathetic excuse for a breeze tries to blow over the cemetery but it really only feels like God just opened a giant oven door. My brain is beating on the sides of my skull and I try to swallow the rest of the Sprite to get it to quit. I wonder if it’s disrespectful to puke on hallowed ground.

“I didn’t bring anything,” I say, realizing we don’t even have a single flower to place on the headstone. James just shrugs. I guess it doesn’t bother him that we’re the first ones to arrive and are walking up to his dad’s grave empty handed. Doesn’t seem right. Poppa’s usually the one who gets here first and typically has something to lay on the grave. Typically, we all stand around, James shuffling his feet in the dirt while Poppa talks, saying nothing more than “yeah,” and “uh huh,” which usually pisses Poppa off. Then we all get quiet for a while. Poppa takes out a folded piece of paper from his pocket and stares at it for a few minutes, then folds it back up and stuffs it into his wallet, never reading it aloud, never leaving it by the headstone. James has never asked what that was all about, and because he hasn’t, neither have I.

We pass a few more rows of grave markers before we arrive at his dad’s. It is so hot I consider hiding out in one of the freshly opened plots, just so I can run my hands through the cold soil that’s been shielded from the heat by layers of earth. We stop a few feet from the stone, and both of us stare at the ground. I start picturing the memories James brought up in the truck and a feeling of anger ripples across my chest. I know it’s not the time or place but I can’t help it. Love spurns a protective desire, but what could I do? The son of a bitch was already in the dirt.

“Well. . .” the rest of my words die away. They all seem so pointless, even more so now. I want all of this to be over and I feel the hurried dreadfulness creep between the graves and lie at our feet. James puts his hands in his pockets and lets out a breath, but he doesn’t say anything, either.

Tires moving through the caliche make us turn our heads. “That’s Larry and Poppa,” James says as the truck parks a few rows back, but only Larry gets out of the vehicle. He’s wearing starched jeans and snakeskin boots with a collared shirt. He is dressed for another occasion separate from this disaster of a day.

“Poppa driving himself?” James asks.

Larry shook his head, his white hair bouncing. “Sorry, James. Your Grandfather wasn’t feeling well and couldn’t make it out, but he does want you to come by before you head back home.”

“Well, he could have called.”

“He figured if he called you this morning and said he wasn’t coming you wouldn’t show,” Larry says.

“Well, that’s not a lie.” James wiped the sweat from his brow.

“But he wanted you to have this and he asked if I could bring it to you.” Larry reaches in his pocket and pulls out the familiar, aging folded piece of paper and hands it to James.

“You serious?”

“Well, your grandfather sure was.”

“What am I supposed to do with it?”

“Keep it, I think.”

“Poppa don’t want it back?” I ask.

Larry looks back and forth between us, then opens only the corners of his mouth to answer like he’s trying to protect us from something. “I don’t think your Poppa’s going to come back out here much anymore.”

This isn’t a hard truth. Poppa is getting mighty old, and Larry is only in his late fifties and has a business to run and new grandkids of his own to visit on Sundays. He doesn’t have a whole lot of time to bring Poppa out here, though I’m sure he would keep doing it if Poppa didn’t step in and say something. I suspect it was all Poppa’s decision, seeing the stuff Larry had piling up on his plate. He didn’t want him missing out and knew he would keep coming unless he told him to get lost, so that’s what he must have done this morning. Very quickly I saw the Father’s Days in the years ahead and tried to imagine what it looked like at this graveside, and who was all standing here if one of them wasn’t Poppa.

“If you don’t mind, I think I’ll leave you two to your affairs. I’ve got a barbecue to get to. Just, go see your grandfather. I think he’d like to see you, James,” Larry says.

“Sure, thanks.” James sticks out his hand and shakes Larry’s before he turns and walks away.

“Have a happy Father’s Day!” I shout after him. He waves a backwards hand and gets in his vehicle and drives off. I turn back to James and eye the paper in his hand. “Well?”

“Well, what?”

“The paper! Aren’t you wondering what it says?”

“It can’t be the same one, can it?”

“I’d recognize that folded paper anywhere. Your Poppa always brings it every year.”

James looks down at it, then at his dad’s grave, then shakes his head. “No, let’s just go.”

“James.” I try to let him know this decision is more ridiculous than this whole affair combined. “You stubborn asshole. Just read the thing.”

“Fine, but then we’re going straight home. We ain’t going to Poppa’s. I can’t stand this heat no more.” He unfolds the paper and takes a step closer to the grave and starts to read, rotating his back towards me.

I wait, reading his body language as I imagine his eyes running across the lines of writing and try to think what the paper has to say. Another boiling breeze moves across the air and a sickness stirs in my stomach again. That would be something, to throw up on this man’s grave. I look over at where we parked the Ranger and wonder if I’d even make it back, giving the cup in my hand a shake and almost weeping at its empty silence. After about another minute, James picks his head up and turns around, staring straight through me like hail cutting through trees. A hot redness creeps onto his cheeks, and I expect the glazed, crinkling look of his eyes to follow, but instead he allows the muscles in his face to fall flat. His shoulders droop and his lips curl south. His knees shake and bend, and then all at once, he falls to the ground.

“James!” I drop the cup and kneel down next to him, sticker burrs poking through the soft layers of the skin on my legs. I put my hands on his arms, his neck, and then his face, and pull it into mine, a river of tears streaming down and off his chin. The tremble of something buried deep in him rises to the surface. It is complicated. It is confusion. It is truth. He doesn’t say anything. He doesn’t have to. I pull him into my shoulder and let him cry, the paper in the dirt half folded, only a few lines visible on the bottoms of the page. I hold James in my arms, and everything unspoken pours out of him and into the ground below us. Suddenly, the heat doesn’t seem to be such a bother anymore and if he needs me to, I’ll sit here for the rest of my life with him.

The cicadas pick up and that stirs James enough to lift his head. “Okay,” he says.

“Okay,” I reply. He stands up and shakes the dirt from his legs and then helps me to my feet.

“Let’s go see Poppa,” he says.

“Okay.” I fold the paper and place it in my pocket. I’ll ask James what he wants to do with it later.

He grabs my hand and stares at the grave. I don’t pull him along.

“I wanted to love him,” he says.

“I know.” I give his hand a little squeeze, and then we move back to the Ranger, opposite of how we arrived, hand-in-hand, neither of us wanting to let go.

We keep our hands together for the fifteen-mile drive to Poppa’s, and I turn the radio on, music filling the cab for the first time on this trip. As we pull into Poppa’s driveway, James turns off the engine and turns to me, still holding my hand.

“I know about the baby,” he says.

My heart leaps into my throat and tightens every muscle around my voice box. Something like a roar fills my ears. “James—”

He shakes his head. “It’s okay.” His voice is like cotton. The burn of tears builds in the corner of my eyes and in my heart.

“Are you sure?”

“Yes,” and a smile so big lands on him with such assurance, I let everything inside of me go and weep like a child.

Shirley Dees received an MFA from Spalding University’s School of Creative and Professional writing in Spring 2021. When not writing, Shirley is busy parenting, seeking sunshine rays, and sampling local craft brews. She lives in Southeast Alabama with her husband, daughter, and geriatric pet turtle.

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You know it’s an amazing year to be a reader when Emily Rapp Black has another book coming. Frida Kahlo and My Left Leg is remarkable. In this book, Emily gives us a look into how Frida Kahlo influenced her own understanding of what it means to be creative and to be disabled. Like much of her writing, this book also gives us a look into moving on (or passed or through) when it feels like everything is gone.

Pick up a copy at Bookshop.org or Amazon and let us know what you think!

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Are you ready to take your writing to the next level?

Two of our favorite writing resources are launching new opportunities for working on your craft. Circe Consulting was formed when Emily Rapp Black and Gina Frangello decided to collaborate on a writing space. Corporeal Writing is under the direction of Lidia Yuknavitch. Both believe in the importance of listening to the stories your body tells. If you sign up for a course, tell them The ManifestStation sent you!

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Anti-racist resources, because silence is not an option

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Click here for all things Jen and on being human

Fiction Fridays, Guest Posts

Remembrances Of The Sun, Of Shadows

June 4, 2021
Havana

by Bruce Crown

Everything had been hollowed out, especially the people, when I checked in. All sunny resorts are inherently the same. A consortium of young and old people sleeping in vomit, talking through cigar smoke, and swimming in low-range rum. I noticed it as soon as I entered. The Cuban peso was as strong as the American dollar. This amused me greatly. Not because Cuban money is worth more or less; I have no opinion on that. What amused me was that every time I needed money changed, the mob of tourists both in front and behind me would complain about this fact. They knew that their money was worth more, and they wanted to spend it here, to help Cuba by buying things to bring back home.

On the first day, the sun blazed as if to burn the darkness out of me, the abyss that had become a threading existence of booze and despair. The smoke trail of my Cohiba rose and misted towards that yellow star in the middle of the clear blue sky. I sipped what was left of my pineapple juice unable to quench the chasing shadows of my thirst. Just another drunk whose money can buy more booze here than back home.

“It’s too hot,” I puffed smoke to no one in particular.

“Yeah… the weather’s nicer in Havana. I’m from Trinidad myself but this sun feels… different. Hey! Where you goin’?”

“Thanks,” I turned back towards the bald and austere man who had a body that glistened with muscles under the infinitely clear sky.

Why, I thought later, did I immediately get up and accept the idea that the weather would be nicer in Havana than in Varadero? The place where I’d spent the last fortnight drinking and watching the waves wash more and more of the sand away hoping that one day it would wash it all away.

“Motorcycle,” I pointed around where the bikes sat around the lobby. “Havana. To rent.” I needed the cool breeze in my hair.

“Sir, have you been drinking?” it was a different concierge than usual. This one had green eyes and spoke perfect English.

I couldn’t help but wonder, whether from her perceptive, the transitive beings that come from ‘mainland nations’ are simply objects that move between shaded patches of sand while the background rattling of empty bottles ensures that they are all the same despite their faces and the flags on their backpacks changing every few days.

“It’s 10 A.M. amigo. Who drinks this early?” I slid my American Express card across the counter. “Give me something fast. 600CCs or more,” smiling like a sucker because I hadn’t been sober since I left Toronto and even then it was a toss-up.

“We don’t rent motorcycles here. You can rent a scooter if you like. But you can’t go to Havana with it.”

“A car then?” my disappointed grimace was hard to contain.

“That could work. We have a Volkswagen Passat available.”

“How’d you manage that? … A Passat? … You’re joking. I saw some classics on the way in. How about a 1951 Plymouth Convertible?” I watched her type faster than I could think; she picked up the phone and dialled some number and chattered something in Spanish.

“Si. Si…” she was saying as I watched another man approach hang up his cell phone.

They talked in Spanish while I leaned on the counter until she pointed to me.

“You want car?” The man asked.

“Yes but I don’t want a Renault or a Volkswagen. I want one of those nice old school convertibles.”

“You know we keep running ourselves. … We … fix ourselves,” he motioned to himself, “They are not original. I have a Mercedes engine in mine. Chevy rear axle. Plymouth gearbox.”

“What kind of car is it?”

“1950 Chevrolet Deluxe.”

“How much?” I asked.

“You’ve been here two weeks right? The writer from Canada? Very cool. We get many like you here. Always sitting by yourself. Smoking and drinking alone all along the beach. That is what Cooba is to you? … No matter. My friend Simon told me sometimes you take the boat too far and he has to come to you? The guy?” he smiled and nodded to the concierge.

“I need your license,” she said.

I spoke close to no Spanish but I could venture a guess what they were talking about. A moral quid-pro-quo. For you see, dear reader, despite the lavish luxury of five-star resorts, the workers themselves cannot partake of any food or drink. They cannot eat, sleep, or relax on resort property. And we, the wealthy, are hard-pressed not to gorge ourselves on the fine rum and cigars and pineapples and steaks and pasta and chicken. One of the maids told me this on the second day. I couldn’t eat for two days. At some point, coughing in cigar smoke, I decided I would take food out of the cafeteria or restaurant under the guise of eating it in my room and then split it amongst the workers. I’m not trying to make myself seem like some paragon of virtue or compassion; it was more for my own comfort than for theirs. You can’t really enjoy your food if the man serving you is himself hungry. By the fourth day most of the crew knew me. In fact, one gentleman named Joseph, which I later learned was pronounced Hoseph, had even gone so far as to bow his head slightly every time he saw me, and after repeatedly begging him not to, he just grinned whenever he saw me.

I slid my license across. “Which guy?”

“The compassionate man. The man with a soul.”

Clichés all over the place. “I don’t believe in the soul.”

“Oh but you should hermano. The soul believes in you! You take my car. I trust you bring it back in one piece.”

“You have my word.” A lie, of course; there was no way I could guarantee jackshit.

He tapped me on the shoulder and walked away, lighting a cigarette.

The concierge handed my cards back and smiled.

“Gracias,” I knocked on the counter.

De nada,” she handed me the keys. “It’s the last car. It is red. Staff parking. You have to go all the way around. Do you know how to get to Havana?”

“I’ll manage.”

She laughed and shook her head, “Drive down this main road…” she motioned with her hands, “And follow it until you merge onto Circuito and Puente Bascular. Then after a while you’ll get to a sharp left at the bus station and parking area. It’s almost like a U-turn. Then Central de Cuba. You got it? CEN-TRAAAL DEE CUUEEBBAA,” she stretched the last part out.

“I got it.”

“You’ll get to Matanzas. Stay on the coastline. The street is called La Habana. That will be 80 kilometres. Should be an hour perhaps. It’s a nice drive. There are small nice cafés. It’s safe to stop. Then you just… follow signs.”

“My specialty,” I helicoptered the keys in my hand and walked out. But not before buying another box of Cohiba Panetelas from the hotel boutique.

“You driving?” The cigar salesman asked.

“What gave me away?”

“Nothing.  You’re The Guy right?”

I was already tired of hearing that.

“… You’ll love Havana. I’m from Mexico myself. Moved here many years ago. My wife is Cuban.”

“Sounds good. We’ll talk later.” I left.

Walking around the side of the building, the sun reflected off the hoods of what could’ve been a history of the automobile arranged from classic American to the newest 2011 Peugeot hatchback. How’d they get those here, I wondered.

I’ll give it to Hector. He had a wonderfully restored red Chevy convertible with a white line going straight from the headlight to the bump of the back wheel. I polished the rims where the chrome met the duo-coloured wheels. The red leather interior still smelled fresh as if it hadn’t been eroded by the passage of time. With a turn of the key, I travelled straight into the 50s.

The concierge hadn’t lied; it was a wonderful landscape, especially when I turned off the highway and drove along the coast. Middle-aged Cubans worked while their strapping young people danced for the busloads of tourists who saw it fit to stop along the water. The only thing that diminished the surreality of continued existence was the constant shuttering sound of camera phones pining to immortalize moments they probably share with thousands of others. My panetela burned smoothly and I was driving against the sun so the darkness burned away with every kilometre I put behind me.

Some people don’t leave the resort the entire time. What’s the point of that?

I pulled over at a café and had something they called an American Destroyer, and when I told them I was Canadian they just laughed and said it would destroy me anyway. It was Havana Club mixed with a pineapple smoothie. I rested while smoking another panetela. Squinting as I watched the sun rays bounce off the red hood of the Chevy.

When it was time to hit the road again I pulled into a gas station to ask for directions because I was afraid I missed that U-turn at the bus station or wherever. I had a coffee. They only drink it black. There are no frappuccinos or foamy flavoured drinks. Things are simpler. The contempt with which the café owner looked at a young German man who asked for milk because the coffee was too strong kept me entertained for hours. I still had ways to go.

Approaching Havana I heard, whether real or hallucinating, the sounds of drums and street parties. I parked before I actually entered the city and rolled the top back up. In the city there was no need for the natives to frolic from store to store and buy things for the benefit of making the tourist feel safe and comfortable. They had, despite their globally morose situation, a deep elation, and though sometimes it was buried in their hearts, you could sense its presence. Most of them didn’t care which two celebrities were dating and at what bars they could be spotted. Seeing random people dance, sometimes couples, wasn’t something I saw every day in Toronto; I berated myself for appropriating their culture; it was unknown to me. New, rich, and full of wonder. I am pampered for even being in this situation and have this thought. They dance; we shop. It’s all the same feedback loop. Was I permitted to elevate their culture, romanticize it? I was sure that there were places here where conditions would be squalid; but then we had those in Toronto too….

It was majestic. There was a street market; tables full of items ranging from family photographs to war medals to car parts being sold for prices that to the capitalist feels like robbery. Little did I know, that despite Havana’s reputation in the west for being a sex-fuelled, boozed, and debauched city, in the corner of my eye hid one of the most profound interactions of my life.

Walking past a table full of handmade trinkets and then another filled with classic baseball cards I caught a glimpse in the corner of my eye. A flashing blur of aqua blue and yellow. When I looked it was only the tame prosaic colours of Cuban tapestry; the dark green army uniforms of the police and the generic grey or black of the merchants. It was too hot and I felt faint. The thirst returned and while I was enjoying a banana smoothie with dark rum I saw it again: the blue and yellow weaving between a few dark green uniforms checking a man’s ID because he was eyeing a collection of used family photos too attentively. I threw too much money on the table venturing to catch the sky but it was she that caught me when she marched up and sat across me. She did not disappoint.

Bonsoir,” I blurted out, following the sun-ray shining upon the golden waves that formed her hair and down her blue summer dress that rested on her snowy shoulders.

“I saw you drive in and then just now looking at the medals. I love it here.”

“There’s a lot of stuff here.” I saw a plane in front of the clear blue sky and followed it until it approached the sun.

“Not really. That’s why I like it. No stuff. It’s…” she inhaled, “Air. Just air. It’s nice to see you again.” her eyes flickered at my brogue boots. She and I had been more than classmates at the University of Toronto.

“You too. Did you ever go back home?” It was more than nice to see her again.

“Yep. To Oslo,” her smile made the sun blink, cooling the weather when clouds covered it.

“That’s a long way.”

She talked about Cuba as if she was a native and it was beguiling to hear her voice. Those hazel irises contracting and dilating talking about Che and Sartre’s visit and Fidelito—that was what she called him. She hated him but spoke of jingoism and illegal embargoes and unjust sanctions in subdued tones  lest we be overheard by a nosy soldier. Every time she pushed a strand of her golden hair out of the way the sun shined on her face for a second and lit her up even more. I was lost. She talked about the fact that the Hotel Nacional had opened on New Years Eve in 1930. I’d never had patience for people talking but she was…. That’s it, she simply was. Another cliché. I left the rest of my drink when she told me that’s where she was staying and invited me back to see the view.

She had a suite all to herself. It felt magical to see the graffitied walls of that Matanzas village, but then the view of the Havana Harbour, steps away from where Sartre, Sinatra, and the Duke and Duchess of Windsor had stayed, relegated that graffiti to historical shame. In fact, looking out the window, I could see the rich tourists across Cubans trying to sell them fake Cohibas with no discernible difference between them. They all looked so small, like ants trying desperately to understand what it was that kept them moving and circling themselves. A breeze caught my hair and I felt the cool air on my face.

“Beautiful isn’t it? I love Cooba,” she never quite pronounced it as we do: Queba. Rather, with that slender and sexy North European accent trying at the same time to pass for Spanish. It was Cooba. Habbana. Ron and Soeda. Falling in love with beauty is the easiest thing in the world. You can fall in love with someone’s beauty in the morning and cease to be in love by dusk. In that hotel, years after we’d parted ways as lovers, I began to love her not for her beauty but for her soul and her manifestation not as a being of beauty but as a being of meaning. No self-help book, entrepreneur keynote, designer boutique or Apple Store or reasonable rate of return could give me the gift that Cuba gave me. It felt so natural and so real and yet so transcendental that the city, so different from home, in which this feeling occurred would have profound meaning for the rest of my life.

She poured us drinks from the minibar and talked about the different kinds of rum cocktails they make there. It is a fallacy that only a native can understand and feel a culture and land. In other words, the claim that an expatriate or wanderer could never attempt but to scratch the surface of the beauty of a particular place in vain is simply not true. Contrary to earlier, I now thought that travellers always have a unique perspective at their disposal. They are free of bias if they take care that nothing first-worldly has happened to them to provoke a bias, such as losing their luggage or being delayed on a first-class ticket. Naturally, if the person is a frequent wanderer; a flâneur, their judgment may be amplified for they have an abundance of comparisons to rely upon. I wouldn’t know Cuban cigars were superior to Dominican ones unless I’d been to both places or tried them both. What a terrible example, but you understand what I mean. Critics will say there are preferences and the wanderer will have to agree. New York is better than Havana. Thus criteria are established to judge a place not by its own merit but by its comparison to other cities that fit those criteria. To curtail the argument that the notion of a beautiful city, like the notion of a beautiful man or woman, rests upon the objective, the wanderer must relinquish all previous moments except the moments that occur in the destination. In other words, to presume nothing but the experience itself. This is a posteriori.

Why was I trying to think so logically? To deduce some philosophical system out of rich people travel and spend money and romanticize the natives’ lives?Every book a white man writes about Africa is the same book with the same clichés. Now I was guilty of this.

“Isn’t it amazing?” she came up behind me and we stood side-by-side staring out into the harbour.

I looked at her up and down breathing the same air as her and for a moment, that insatiate thirst was quenched.

“Oh my god! I forgot you were a writer! I have to take you to Hemingway’s. Grab your shirt.”

“I’ve already been. There’s one in Helsinki.”

“Not like this one,” with that floaty step of hers; the dancer’s step, and that smile that lit up the sun, I had no choice but to follow. The clichés nearly broke me, I thought, but then I shrugged; you have nothing better to do, I told myself.

And in the abyss of Hemingway’s I drowned. She chattered with the owner in broken Spanish and pointed to me. I glanced around at all the pictures of Hemingway with various Cuban political and social figures and narrated the stories behind each picture to myself. She was telling him I was a writer or something and like a ritual, as if he’d done it thousands of times before for those western tourists interested in Jazz Age literature and the surfaces of their country, he began mixing a drink.

“No,” I interrupted, lighting a panetela, “Give me something else. I don’t want what Hemingway drank,” it was only sprite and white rum anyway. “Make me something distinctly Cuban. Distinctly yours.

A frightening smile washed across his face as he began mixing a cocktail like an old master coming out of retirement for one last job. “This,” he pointed to the glass, “La Generación Perdida.”

“What’s it mean?” I took the glass.

He smirked, “The Lost Generation.”

Every generation thinks they have it rough. But one financial meltdown after another, one corporate bailout after another at our expense, and you find yourself expecting the next one rather than hoping or looking for a saviour.

The next thing I remember is waking up in her hotel room and watching the water through the window.

“What was in that drink?” she yawned with the sun-rays reflecting from her hazel irises through the window and into my soul.

“I don’t know. But it lost me all right.”

“Now you know how they feel,” she turned away from the window and covered herself with the blanket.

To this day, whenever I play this conversation over and over again in my head in ardent nostalgia, I don’t know why I asked, “You want to come to Varadero with me? I’m heading to Europe after.”

“Where in Europe?”

“Paris, then catching the plane to Lisbon.”

She just laughed as she got dressed. “Maybe next time, my love.” She left the room to get breakfast and never returned. I waited three days. I wanted to stay indefinitely but my hotel called. They were worried and reality set into me like the darkness of those clear night airs so seldom felt in Canada but so plentiful on that “magical” island.

“Thanks Hector,” I shook his hand and handed him the keys, “I filled her up for you.”

“You look different. Believe in souls now, hermano?”

I didn’t answer as readily as last time, “Thanks Hector,” I repeated in an attempt to ignore him, “She really is wonderful,” I pointed to the car.

He laughed. “She is… I like you hermano. You’re cool.”

I bowed to Joseph and left that day. What was it about that place?

The same uncanny disquiet shook me when I saw her again. It was in Paris and I’d been thinking of her constantly. Like the second act of a bad film, I’d dreamt we’d moved to one of those coastline villas outside of Havana and we would wake and drink black coffee and stare out into the sea. I was writing her a poem about it while having my breakfast at the Plaza Athénée and she just… walked in front of me.

“This place is nice,” was how she greeted me after all that elapsed time, “But it’s no Cooba!” then she bent down, pecked me on the cheek, and walked towards the lobby. By the time I chased her outside she was gone again.

Bruce Crown is from Toronto. He has penned four novels. He has attained an HBA from the University of Toronto, and an M.Phil. from the University of Copenhagen. He splits his time between Copenhagen, and Toronto.

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.

Megan Galbraith is a writer we keep our eye on, in part because she does amazing work with found objects, and in part because she is fearless in her writing. Her debut memoir-in-essays, The Guild of the Infant Saviour: An Adopted Child’s Memory Book , is everything we hoped from this creative artist. Born in a charity hospital in Hell’s Kitchen four years before Governor Rockefeller legalized abortion in New York. Galbraith’s birth mother was sent away to The Guild of the Infant Saviour––a Catholic home for unwed mothers in Manhattan––to give birth in secret. On the eve of becoming a mother herself, Galbraith began a search for the truth about her past, which led to a realization of her two identities and three mothers.

This is a remarkable book. The writing is steller, the visual art is effective, and the story of  what it means to be human as an adoptee is important.

Pick up a copy at Bookshop.org or Amazon and let us know what you think!

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Anti-racist resources, because silence is not an option

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Click here for all things Jen and on being human

Fiction Fridays, Guest Posts

The Women Are Waiting

May 28, 2021
women

by Arya Samuelson

It always starts with a woman. Plunging into a clawfoot tub, burning her skin in waves. Or poised at the edge of her bed, head turned as if to pose for a portrait – only nobody else is there. What about the woman gazing at the rice fields, straw brim hat shielding her eyes from the feverish sun? She is not of this place and that’s why she has come. Because she feels freest in places where she has no history. (No history except colonialism, whispers a voice inside, which she swats away like the mosquitoes that form a curtain along the river.) A woman living inside a girl, furious and desperate because she can’t tie her shoes; the knot is slipping and she’s screaming inside, surrounded by a hovering crowd of her brother’s friends.

These women are waiting. Their story awaits. Hearts beat wildly, skin pulsing with the desire to be carried away on the boat of narrative that will give their lives, their pain, a purpose. The boats with engraved names like Plot or Character Development or Foil. Many will wait for a yacht to dock and hope for a big pay-off, others prefer a fishing boat (an ensemble drama,) while some settle for a sailboat: a self-published journey. It’s only the bravest and most foolish who dream of Transformation, the solitary ship that travails the rockiest, most violent waters. Capsizing is the deal you must strike. Body buckled beneath the current, black seaweed twisting your ankles. Heartbursting, striving for surface and a life beyond it. Survival is not a guarantee. Better to board the cruise boat that sails alongside and raise a cocktail glass to those morons. Sure, you only exist in glimpses – everyone’s attention fixed on Transformation, betting on the odds as if this were a horse race – but at least you’ll get to have some fun.

How to obtain passage on such a ship? Theories abound. Some say you need to cause a scene, shriek in the captain’s ear, and if it comes to this, grip your hands around his neck. Others whisper about underground bidding wars, where tickets are auctioned in exchange for unspeakable deeds. But another way is to climb inside an image – a woman plucking flowers, or lighting a house on fire, or climbing inside a bathtub and sing the words that resound at the core of your pelvis. Just stay there, resting inside the frame or moving your limbs when the impulse strikes, entirely and completely yourself, until someone walks by with a thousand questions. A passer-by so moved with wonder they’ll invite you onto their ship. Though you must wait for the right person, someone who won’t treat you like a circus monkey or glaze over your words. Wait for the person who will instead feed you fresh bread and crisp apples, who leaves a bowl of silence after each question, waiting to be filled with your voice.

Arya Samuelson is a writer currently based in Northampton, MA. She was awarded CutBank’s 2019 Montana Prize in Non-Fiction, which was judged by Cheryl Strayed. Her work has also been published in New Delta Review, Entropy, and The Millions. Arya is a graduate of the MFA Creative Writing program at Mills College and is currently working on her first novel. She is proud to be part of Lidia Yuknavitch’s Corporeal coven of writers.

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Megan Galbraith is a writer we keep our eye on, in part because she does amazing work with found objects, and in part because she is fearless in her writing. Her debut memoir-in-essays, The Guild of the Infant Saviour: An Adopted Child’s Memory Book , is everything we hoped from this creative artist. Born in a charity hospital in Hell’s Kitchen four years before Governor Rockefeller legalized abortion in New York. Galbraith’s birth mother was sent away to The Guild of the Infant Saviour––a Catholic home for unwed mothers in Manhattan––to give birth in secret. On the eve of becoming a mother herself, Galbraith began a search for the truth about her past, which led to a realization of her two identities and three mothers.

This is a remarkable book. The writing is steller, the visual art is effective, and the story itself is important.

Pick up a copy at Bookshop.org or Amazon and let us know what you think!

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Anti-racist resources, because silence is not an option

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Click here for all things Jen

Fiction Fridays, Grief, Guest Posts

Nobody Lives Here Anymore

May 7, 2021
rose

by Margaret MacDonald

When Rose dreams, she’s in the middle of a long street. It’s one of the streets that her and Cathy would make jokes about, would make up stories about the lives inside, would look at the house stiff and erect and lifeless and instantly know the type of person who owned it.

Surely nobody can live in there, Cathy would say. You would be scared to take your shoes off.

Rose’s sister goes missing on a Tuesday. On a Tuesday Rose’s sister leaves. Whichever one is true, either way she’s gone. Rose tells the police everything she knows.

She was at work late that night and her name is Cathy

She was wearing a grey raincoat and her name is Cathy

Her name is Cathy and her name is Cathy

After a week, the police come to the conclusion that Cathy left of her own volition. The evidence is stacked against Rose: Cathy took some cash out of their shared safe, some of her clothes are missing along with her rucksack, and she quit her job the night that she left.

Nothing survives her or loves her except for Rose. There’s nobody to argue with.

Rose leaves voicemails, texts, Facebook messages, Snapchat messages, emails. She calls and calls and calls until her voice is hoarse from repeating the same lines, always a variation of please just answer or please let me know you’re alright or please.

She worries so much that she gives herself a stomach ache. The worst of all is that she doesn’t know what she did wrong.

Rose finds a dead spider in the bath. She baulks to move it but manages to scoop it up with a cup. The noise that it makes as it flops against the side, solid and real, reminds her that it was alive once. She looks down at it, small inside the cup. What a terrible way to die, she thinks. Scrambling uselessly against the side of the bathtub, desperately trying to stay afloat inside the puddle left behind. The longer she looks, the longer she thinks that might not be true. Maybe its last moments were peaceful, and clean. She read somewhere that you shouldn’t kill spiders; that they’re signs of a clean home. An empty home.

In her dreams, Rose looks down the long row of houses that her and Cathy joked about. She starts to walk. There’s no lights on in any of the houses. They’re all identical, white-bricked and front-facing, all hollow dark windows and shadowed edges. There’s one at the end, though, that feels different. It feels alive.

Rose slows as she nears it. She watches for a moment.

Branches press their arms against the glass, pushing and curling and bending to fit inside the house until they sprout out the window to shoot tall and long and free. The roof is moving too, straining, hurting, before more branches push and shove themselves out. They bloom with leaves and flowers and create a canopy, like a silly little hat.

Rose smiles. It truly does look silly. Like a tree wearing a house, or maybe a house swallowed a tree.

She walks around the side to inspect it, comes to the back garden and feels her feet stop. It’s their back garden, the one they grew up in.

Rose takes a couple steps until she’s in the middle. She stands there for a moment until she feels something. She frowns.

It’s a voice, it’s underneath her feet somewhere below the ground, not a sound exactly but the sensation that a voice makes in the base of the throat. It’s in the soles of her feet, a vibration, a feeling.

Rose goes down on her hands and knees. She touches the mud with tentative fingertips and feels along the surface; it’s trying to escape. Rose doesn’t know why, doesn’t know how she knows, but then

She starts to dig, her fingers tearing at the soft earth like teeth into cake. The more she digs the more it unearths of the voice, the murmur. It’s shapeless and formless but it’s familiar, it’s her sister, she’s buried, she’s trapped.

A frantic sense of surety wells up in Rose, she’s down there, she knows Cathy is down there. Her hands are deep deep deep inside, elbow-high in the stomach of it, fingernails rooted and filled with mud. Rose puts her ear close to the ground and strains to hear, listens for help or I’m stuck or Rose, is that you? Get me out! but the murmuring is taking shape, is turning into words, a strange automated quality to them, robotic and unreal as,

Hye, you there? I’ve been back to the apartment

Rose spreads her palms across the ripped-up earth, the roots and the muck, presses the side of her face flat and listens to the whirring click of the voicemail,

Where are you? They said you quit your job two days ago. Seriously, Cathy? What the hell are –

The voice is small, it smells like moss and dirt, like piles and piles and piles of earth are on top of it.

Okay, I really don’t give a shit about the money, just call –

Rose closes her eyes, she could speak the words alongside herself, she could say,

Where exactly do you think you’re going to stay, Cathy? Do you not realise we’ve scraped by –

She lies down properly, on her side with her cheek in the mud, and mouths,

Are you ever going to answer? I know these are going through, so what? You won’t block me, won’t change your number, you’ll just keep ignoring me?

Are you there?

Hey, I’m home! You’d never guess what happened on my way over!

Anyone home! It’s me!

Just me!

Margaret McDonald (she/her) is a Scottish writer. She has a B.A (Hons) in Creative Writing with English Literature from The University of Strathclyde, and is currently studying for an MLitt in English Literature at the University of Glasgow. She was shortlisted in the Cranked Anvil Short Story Competition July 2020. She’s @margaret_pens on Twitter and @margaretmcdonald_ on Instagram

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.

Megan Galbraith is a writer we keep our eye on, in part because she does amazing work with found objects, and in part because she is fearless in her writing. Her debut memoir-in-essays, The Guild of the Infant Saviour: An Adopted Child’s Memory Book , is everything we hoped from this creative artist. Born in a charity hospital in Hell’s Kitchen four years before Governor Rockefeller legalized abortion in New York. Galbraith’s birth mother was sent away to The Guild of the Infant Saviour––a Catholic home for unwed mothers in Manhattan––to give birth in secret. On the eve of becoming a mother herself, Galbraith began a search for the truth about her past, which led to a realization of her two identities and three mothers.

This is a remarkable book. The writing is steller, the visual art is effective, and the story itself is important.

Pick up a copy at Bookshop.org or Amazon and let us know what you think!

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Anti-racist resources, because silence is not an option

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

 

Click here for all things Jen

Autism, Fiction Fridays, Guest Posts

Ordinary Lives

April 16, 2021
risa

by Marlene Olin

Margaret hears the sound of cabinet doors slamming. When she walks into the kitchen, her heart lurches. The walls are splattered, the floors crunchy.  But her daughter’s happy. Tomato sauce spackles Risa’s hair and her glasses. On top of a pot, steam billows.

“Dinner’s almost done,” says Risa.  A tornado of arms and legs, she whirls from the sink to the stove. “By my calculations, nine minutes tops.”

Once again Margaret glances at her kitchen. Risa has created a workspace like she’s been taught. The counter is covered with newspaper. The ingredients lined just so. Bay leaves. Garlic. Onion. Oregano. The measuring spoons and cups. The mixing bowls and slotted spoons. Not one dish will be cleaned until after dessert.  Order is everything.

“Looks great, sweetie. It’s such a help when you cook dinner.” Then Margaret mentally makes a note of the post-cleaning required long after her daughter has cleaned and gone to bed.

But there’s no denying that Risa’s happy. There’s a lift in her step and she hums while she works. When she’s finished, she walks up to Margaret. Most people would leave an ample amount of space between them. But space is subjective. Space is a loose and wobbly entity that one intuits. Instead Risa lines up toe to toe with her mother and waves a finger in Margaret’s face.

“One more step on the road to independence, Mom.”  Then she remembers her smile cards and creases the corners of her mouth.

***

Three hours later, they are lying down. Risa’s bedroom has looked the same for decades. The sheets are soft and flannel, the shelves lined with her collections. Stones. Crystals. Shells.

As always, Margaret picks a book of poems and reads. Dickinson tonight. Perhaps Browning tomorrow. Outside the window the moon waxes and wanes. Inside the words fall like waves. It’s the sound that matters, the lilt, the lull, the up and down. Meanwhile Margaret stifles yawn after yawn. Her day can’t end soon enough.

“Do you know that a giraffe just needs 1.9 hours of sleep?” says Risa.

While she turns the page, Margaret listens to the quiet of her house. A TV drones. A dryer rumbles. Somewhere her husband is lurching. Hunched, his hands clenched, his eyes darting.  A lost soul, her husband. A Victorian ghost. A daguerreotype, grayed and grim, save for the waistcoat and watch.

“Do you know that sharks have to keep moving?”  says Risa. “Do you know that sharks never sleep?”

“Never sleep?” says Margaret.

Despite herself, Margaret savors the moment. For she knows that moments like these will soon be come and gone.  This is the year that Risa’s turning forty. With the proper supervision and support, Risa will be getting her own apartment. Her bags will be packed. The house will be emptied. The shrinks, the social workers, the experts all say it’s time.

On the ceiling are Day-Glo constellations. As soon as the lamp’s turned off, they grab the light. Margaret closes her eyes. In seconds she’s transported to 1980’s. They had just moved to Miami for her husband’s new job.

  “Spring has sprung!” said the banner. Bunnies and egg-lined baskets.  A chain of pastel construction paper crisscrossed the room.

The teacher kept her voice to a whisper. “I have twenty children in my kindergarten. Twenty children and two aides. But Risa’s the one we watch. She runs with scissors. Walks into the seesaw. The other day she followed a stray dog out the school and down the block.”

What was her name?  Miss Susan or Miss Sarah. It was mythical the way she saw into the future. Like some sort of blind seer. Back then there were no catchphrases. No spectrums. No labels. Nothing to hang your hat on but despair.

“Her IQ is sky high. That’s obvious. And her knowledge of trivia endless. But she flinches at the slightest touch. She’s terrified of hugs.”

Instead of friends, Risa had pets. No dogs or cats. Margaret’s husband was allergic. To the hair. To the dander. To the pollen on their fur. Instead they adopted an ever-changing zoo. A guinea pig that kept them up all night. A savage hamster. A gerbil that found its way into the dryer duct. Saltwater fish. Freshwater fish. One morning they’d be fine. Then the next they’d be floating, a lifeless eye staring toward the light.

A fitful sleeper, Risa tosses and turns while Margaret inches closer to the edge. Of course, her daughter has no idea what awaits her. Noisy neighbors. Nosy landlords.  Butt crack plumbers. Pervs. But what Margaret fears most is the loneliness. She can see it now.  The hours of bone-crushing silence, the kind of quiet that screams.

Margaret’s dealt with pitfalls and potholes. And now an old familiar panic starts to grow.  Margaret’s learned to trust her instincts. Her instincts rarely fail her. But all she envisions are red lights and stop signs.  Risa’s own apartment? All she can hear is her voice shouting no!

Meanwhile Margaret’s bullied right and left.

From her son, the lawyer in Washington, the one who will one day bear the burden. Each rebuke is spewed with fear: “You’re not getting younger, you know.”

From the shrink. Good or bad, inspired or idiotic, the meter keeps running:  “What’s the worst that can happen?”

From the professionals in their air-conditioned offices, sweatered in smiles, gripping their coffee cups, glued to their screens: “It’s time to cut the cord, Mom.” Like Margaret’s a fucking stereotype. Like there’s an instruction manual she somehow missed.

Only her friends can she count on. In darkened rooms, she sobs while they sip Chablis. “She’s going where?” They say. “You’re doing what?”

But her daughter is insistent. She’s like a dog with a bone. Pulling. Tugging. The whole world has narrowed to this one theme, this one topic, this one road.

Margaret lowers her voice, taps into some patience, and slips a mask of calmness on her face. It won’t be as easy as you think, Margaret reminds her. The words coil like an undercurrent, slipping into every conversation. You’re too kind-hearted. Not everyone is as trusting and as kind-hearted as you.

But no argument chips the concrete. Instead Risa rolls her eyes. Then she reminds her mother of her accomplishments. The 3.3 average in college. Her job at the library. Plus she’s cooked dinner for three nights straight!

***

They make apartment hunting more of a pastime than a project. Marilyn, their realtor, is a friend. Blonde, bronzed, roped with jewelry, she carves out time in her busy busy schedule. She has known Margaret and Risa since forever.

Every Sunday, it is now part of their routine.

Marilyn points out the window. Beyond the pool is Biscayne Bay. “The condo is vacated,” says Marilyn. “Its owners just fled. Tax problems. Immigration problems. Who knows?  A bedroom and two baths plus lots of light.”

Margaret struggles to find fault but finds herself tongue-tied, stumped.

“I like this place,” says Marilyn. “There’s a nice view. Incredible amenities. A party room plus a gym!”

While Margaret follows the swoop of her hand, Risa has disappeared.  They find her checking out a spider down the hall.  When she joins them, her face is vacant, her eyes glazed. Security deposits. Down payments. It’s all too much too absorb.

“Do you know that living rooms were once called parlors?” says Risa. “When you died, they laid out your body on a table. Then all your friends and relatives dropped by.”

“Really?” says Marilyn. She is listening and not listening. Punching her phone.

“Really,” says Risa. “Then one day death became a business. Morticians took the bodies, cleaned them up, and moved them to funeral parlors. Then people started calling their parlors living rooms. Get it? Living rooms.”

“Is that a fact?” says Marilyn.

“Do you know that after mating,” says Risa, “the male arachnid dies?”

It was eighth grade. All the kids in Risa’s private school were supposed to perform community service. The voices in Margaret’s head said no. The voices yelled and screamed, are you insane? But Risa pleaded, all the kids were doing it, here’s the list of places we can go.

The plan was to drop her off at the animal shelter every Saturday. Margaret insisted on her version of a hazmat suit. Long sleeves, long pants. Covered shoes. They gave Risa all the jobs no one else would do. Clean bird shit from cages. Clean dog shit from crates. Every afternoon Margaret would pick Risa up, drive her home, and direct her straight into the shower.

Still the first month went smoothly. No chore was too vile. Risa would rake her fingers through a dog’s fur and instantly decompress. She’d stroke a cat and shudder as it purred. It was the second month that proved a disaster.

A staff member named Timmy started hanging around. A scruffy beard to cover up the acne. Torn jeans and checkerboard teeth. He’d wash a dog and spray Risa with the hose until her clothes clung. Then he’d warble, look who’s got titties. He talked her into wearing white tee shirts, the more to gawk at when they clung.

Then one day he asked her along to pick up a litter. They took off in his truck, his hand slipping on and off the gear stick, digging in the space between her thighs.  You working out, Risa?  She sat up straighter, startled. You seem tense, he said. I can feel your muscles clench.

She took a shower for two hours that night. Then she plucked out all her eyelashes. Clean couldn’t get clean enough.

But Marilyn’s not on the program. While Margaret wants to press the pause button, Marilyn’s programmed to make a deal. It’s almost Thanksgiving when she finds the perfect apartment. Fully refurbished. Fort Knox Security. The place is only two miles from their house.

“I’m sending you a lease,” says Marilyn. “We’ve got to jump on this one fast.”

The three of them had just finished eating a quick dinner in the kitchen.  Margaret. Her husband. Risa. The family response is all too easy to predict.

The husband retreats to his den.

Margaret gulps an antacid followed by an Ativan chaser.

Risa puts her hands on her hips. Then she lectures her mother theatrically like she’s seen people do on TV. “Everyone has their own apartment. I’m the only person in the world without her own apartment. This is your problem, Mother. Not mine.”

“But Risa,” says Margaret scrambling for words.

Next her daughter lifts her chin toward the ceiling and starts bugling like an overgrown toad.  When she’s finished with her performance, she turns once more to Margaret.

“Do you know,” says Risa, “that a Panamanian gold frog has no outside ears? It can even ignore its own voice.”

The days slog by. Marilyn texts every hour on the hour while the three of them gnash their teeth. But the more Margaret vacillates, the more anxious Risa becomes. She gives up sleep altogether. She bites on her lips and chews on her hands, gnawing her nails to the quick.

If only there were a guidebook, thinks Margaret. A primer for extraordinary people who crave ordinary lives. The problem is so much more than geography. There’s a hole in Risa’s heart that she can’t identify let alone fill. Though Risa’s life is consumed with routine, it’s shockingly empty.  Sure she has contacts on social media. But they aren’t true connections. They aren’t real friends.

And while Risa stays stuck, the rest of the world has moved on. Her brother has married and has two children. Even her younger cousins have families, too.

Is this something you can imagine? Margaret once asked her. Is this something that you want? When you look into the future, is this something that you see?

No, says Risa. I really can’t.

It’s a reality that Margaret has difficulty accepting. At night, she dreams of happy endings.  She pictures satin wedding gowns. A handsome groom and a multi-tiered cake.

But there’s no cooing infant in this picture. There’s no strolling down an aisle festooned with baby’s breath and ferns. Instead, Risa envisions a menagerie, a home for the lost and the neglected. There are no playpens and Pampers. Instead there’s meowing and barking. Chirping and cheeping. Room after room of flying feathers.

Her husband hides. Her son yells. Her realtor nags. And like mercury in a thermometer, her daughter’s stress shoots up. Meanwhile Margaret walks on tiptoes and speaks in whispers. It’s like living with a volcano that’s bound to explode.

“I hate you, Mother,” says Risa.

“They want signatures,” says Marilyn.

But Margaret shakes them off. There are and will be other apartments. This is another roadblock they can overcome.

She spends hours on the computer. Then she locates a special organization in Wisconsin that sells trained dogs. They aren’t service dogs. Risa would have to wait years for a service dog. But they know forty commands right off the bat.

The family response is all too easy to predict.

Risa’s eyebrows nearly jump off her head. Then she bounces up and down like she’s on a trampoline, waving her hands and wiggling her fingers. “I’m getting a dog! I’m getting a dog!”

The husband starts sneezing.

The son whines. “I always wanted a dog. We never got a dog before. Now Risa gets a dog?”

By January, the two of them are in Madison. The temperature is below zero and everything’s white. The rental car passes frozen lake after lake, the air’s still, the sky crisp. A few crazies are ice-fishing. Convenient stores sell cheese balls, cheese curds, cheese soup. Churches scream, Save Your Soul! Their laps are littered with road maps while their phones prove useless. Heading into the woods, they drive clean off the grid.

After two hours, they locate the kennel. Ten acres, a barn, and a house. A lumberjack kind of guy opens the door. Six feet tall, he’s a Paul Bunyan look-alike.  Flannel shirt. Workman boots.  Jeans.

Soon their efforts are rewarded when twenty Labrador Retriever puppies greet them. Black. Yellow. Brown. Licking. Yapping. Pawing. Deciding is impossible. Ridiculous!  With tears in her eyes, Risa becomes enamored with each and every one.

Finally, as the sun sets, a gold-colored dog picks Risa. She is sitting on the floor when a two-month-old ball of fluff waddles over, lies in her lap, and falls asleep. Smiling, Risa gives her a name. She looks like a Milly, don’t you think? Then they say their goodbyes and leave the puppy in Wisconsin to be trained. After a five-month gestation period, they’ll fly back. Then they’ll pick up the newest member of the family.

In the meantime, they get ready. They sign a lease. Purchase furniture. And every few weeks they’re emailed photos of the dog. Risa forwards them to everyone she knows. Like any proud parent, she diligently records milestones. She carries a brag book. To strangers on the bus she says, Have you seen anything cuter? To her mother she says, You’re the best.

There are commands to learn and supplies to buy. Leashes. Crates. Rawhide toys. Could Risa register for gifts at a pet store, Margaret wonders? Can I send out an announcement when our latest addition arrives? Sure, she tells her friends. Getting a new dog doesn’t have to be this hard. But when is learning to love ever easy?

Marlene Olin was born in Brooklyn, raised in Miami, and educated at the University of Michigan. Her short stories have been featured or are forthcoming in publications such as The Massachusetts Review, PANK, Catapult, and The Baltimore Review. She is the winner of the 2015 Rick DeMarinis Short Fiction Award, the 2018 So To Speak Fiction Prize, and a nominee twice for both the Pushcart and the Best of the Net prizes.

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Blow Your House Down is a powerful testimony about the ways our culture seeks to cage women in traditional narratives of self-sacrifice and erasure. Frangello uses her personal story to examine the place of women in contemporary society: the violence they experience, the rage they suppress, the ways their bodies often reveal what they cannot say aloud, and finally, what it means to transgress “being good” in order to reclaim your own life.

Pick up a copy at Bookshop.org or Amazon.

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Anti-racist resources, because silence is not an option

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

 

Click here for all things Jen

death, Fiction, Fiction Fridays, Guest Posts

Bernoulli’s Heart

April 9, 2021
By Marco Etheridge

The coffin was in the ground and clods of earth had drummed on the hollow box. Retreating to the home of the newly departed, the mourners pour out liberal libations. Murmurs move through the sprawling house; quiet lamentation mixed with dashes of muffled laughter.

Some of the bereaved gather under the shaded cloister, chic in veils and tailored suits of black. Sunlight spills over the red earthen tiles of the courtyard. Four tables stand in the sunlight, four umbrellas furled. All of the wrought iron chairs are empty save for one.

The woman’s face is hidden under a wide-brimmed black hat. Her legs are bent to one side, ankles crossed, the black-stockinged calves of a woman younger than five decades. On the table beside her is an almost empty wine glass rimmed with ghost kisses from crimson lips.

A man appears from the shadow of the cloister. He strides across the courtyard, a full glass of wine in one hand, a tumbler of scotch in the other. The woman tilts back her head, watches his progress from beneath the brim of her hat.

The man stops beside her table, still holding the two glasses. He smiles at the woman with that singular smile that is reserved for old lovers. She returns his smile in kind while adding up the years since she last saw him in the flesh.

— John Staffen, as I live and breathe.

— Hello Yvette. Bit of a redundant expression, especially for a wake.

— What’s more redundant than a wake?

— Too true, in a sad sort of way. I saw your glass was empty. I had to guess on the wine.

— You always were a gentleman. If the wine is red, and in a glass, it’s perfect.

John Staffen flourishes the wine and places it on the table with a mock bow. Raising himself, he gestures to an empty seat. Yvette awards him a regal nod. He unbuttons his black suit coat and sits. He looks long over the rim of his whisky and Yvette Martin lets him look. Crystal scrapes the glass tabletop as he sets it down.

— My brain is telling me fifteen years, but my eyes don’t agree. You look damn good, Yvette.

— Thank you, John, it’s been sixteen, but who’s counting? You look good as well.

Staffen snorts, shakes his head.

— I look like death on a cracker and you know it. Not as bad as our dearly departed Harry, of course.

— Don’t be a drama queen, John. You’re not on stage right now. A little grey at the temples, some craggy lines; you’re a handsome middle-aged devil.

He waves a dismissive hand.

— Are you living here in the old alma mater?

— That’s right, still living at the scene of our crimes. I’ve got a cute condo with a view of the Charles, walking distance from my lab and the lecture hall. I’m all settled down like a real grownup. I assume you’re here just long enough to pay your last respects.

— I’m watching a friend’s place for a few weeks, then I’m off to Seattle for rehearsals and a six-week run of Uncle Vanya. I’m cast as the Old Professor, something that happens more often these days. Not that it matters.

— I’ll bet the script girls still swoon.

She gives him a long look but not without a smile. It is a look he remembers well. He thinks better of it and retreats.

— Do you mind if I smoke? It’s been a long morning.

— By all means. I look forward to the waves of disapproval.

Staffen glances to the figures in black strung along the shadowed borders of the courtyard.

— Piss on them. A murder of crows.

He removes a small cigar from a pocket, clips it, and flicks a lighter. The flame hovers beneath the tip of the cigar. He leans back in his chair as a cloud of smoke rises and swirls into the sunlight. A half smile breaks across his face as he speaks.

— Sixteen years gone and our paths cross here. I think Harry would get a chuckle out of that.

— I hope so. Were you two still close?

— No, not since he became the rich and famous Henry Grimes. We’d see each other now and again, whenever he felt like slumming with his old pals. I played Falstaff to his young prince, even though he had a decade on me. When was the last time you saw him?

— It’s been five years. We had a bit of a falling out. Bitter words, expectations not met, that sort of thing.

— Wait, were you two a thing? I had no idea.

— Why would you? Harry kept all his lives in separate compartments. Not the sort of man to spill his secrets while swilling drinks with you. What would he say? Oh, by the way John, I’ve bedded the former love of your life. Lovely Girl, I don’t know why you ever let her slip away. That was never Harry’s style and you know it.

Staffen smokes in silence, taking this in. Harry would have been right to say it. Why did he let her slip away? More of a push than a letting slip, truth be told.

— Anyway, it ended badly, as we both knew it would. But here I am, mourning the beloved dead.

Yvette takes a long drink of wine. She smiles at her former lover, the edges of her teeth stained bloody red.

— Don’t be shocked, John, and don’t pout. I always hated that. Harry was a charming man in his own way, until he wasn’t.

— I’m not shocked, just a bit surprised. You know it’s true, the part about you being the love of my life.

— I know.

— Do you mind if I change the subject?

— Please do.

Staffen contemplates his cigar before speaking.

— How many funerals have you been to this year?

— That’s a morbid question.

— Humor me, you used to be good at it.

— Don’t be catty, it doesn’t suit you. How many funerals this year? Three, if we’re counting today. Why?

He nods, as if having something confirmed.

— This makes four for me. There’s been a subtle shift in my social schedule. It happened sometime after I turned forty. I used to suffer through more weddings than funerals. Now it’s the opposite. The change is weighing on my mind, or rather on my heart.

— You’re being serious. That’s not like you. What do you mean, weighing on your heart?

— When I review the owner’s manual for my life, I can’t find a single chapter where it states that death will become a regular event. The bastards who wrote it lied to me, at least by omission.

— There’s an owner’s manual? I guess I never got my copy.

— Sure you did; we all did. It’s that compendium of expectations that we learned as kids. Childhood, school, meeting that special someone, children of our own, then a happy life into our dotage. But the balance tilts along the way. Not everyone gets their allotted four-score years. A car crash, an OD, a cancer diagnosis, and before you know it your heart is filled with dead people elbowing for space. My heart is getting crowded.

Yvette swirls the wine in her glass, thinks better of it, returns the glass to the table. She leans closer to John before she speaks.

— Your metaphorical heart is running out of space?

— Ever the scientific mind, Yvette.

— That’s one of the perils of being a scientist.

— Yes, I’m talking about the poet’s heart, not the muscle in my chest that races every time I see you.

— John Staffen, that is a very odd and sweet thing to say. Setting that weird compliment aside, my scientific mind tells me that you’re talking about accumulated grief. But on another level, I think I understand what you mean. I lost my mother, then my sister, both to breast cancer. Dead friends, people you don’t know, some younger than me. And now Harry, of course.

— There’s that as well, the quick assessment of my own mortality. When I read someone’s obit, the first thing I do is compare my age to theirs. Were they younger than me? The math gets less pretty as the years pass.

Yvette shakes her head, raises one hand as if to ward off the thought.

— No obituaries for me, thanks. I’m fifty years old, not some crazy old cat lady. A girl has limits. And no mortality discussions at a wake; We’re supposed to be celebrating Harry’s life, remember?

— Right, and now I have to make room for Harry. Except as I’m saying this out loud, I think it’s a question of weight rather than space. The dead weigh more than the living. Does that make any sense?

Staffen reaches for his whisky, eyes on Yvette over the rim of his tumbler. He is surprised to see her chuckle and responds with a questioning shrug which she answers.

— Sorry, science and grief colliding.

— Which one of them is funny?

— It’s the collision that’s funny, at least to me. Do you remember Bernoulli’s principal?

— You are the strangest woman I’ve ever met. You know that, right?

— Says the man who almost married me. Are you stalling for time?

— No, Bernoulli, I remember. That’s what allows planes to fly and shower curtains to be annoying, right?

— Yes, and more to my point, why straws collapse when you try to suck up that last bit of milkshake. Fluid dynamics; as the speed of flow increases, the pressure decreases. Less pressure inside the straw than outside it, so the milkshake squishes the straw.

— I’m being serious and you’re making fun.

— No, I’ve been struggling with this same sense of loss, more than just today. You talk about grief in terms of weight and space and my brain searches for a scientific principle to corroborate or deny. It’s how my mind works. You know that.

— Then would you care to explain how Bernoulli equates to the weight of grief?

— This is not an equation; it’s an analogy that banged into my head on top of, um, three glasses of wine. Which doesn’t make it untrue, just a little tangled. First, we need a baseline. Have you ever dated a widow?

— No widows, no orphans. Why?

— You always were a smart man. It’s very difficult to compete with a dead lover. Once they’re dead, they don’t make mistakes. The dead don’t forget birthdays, or anniversaries, and they are always there. Unlike the living, who tend to fuck things up and are often absent when they should be present.

— Is this from first-hand experience?

— Trust me, John, just say no. You can bitch about someone’s Ex, but you slander their dear departed at your own peril. Which is the opening to my hypothesis: the dead are immobile, hence denser. The living are different. We hold them in our hearts, but not like lumps of lead. They move around, sometimes they annoy the hell out of us. Their relative weight in our heart changes. What I’m saying is that their presence is not a constant.

Staffen shakes his head in wonder. Yvette talking a mile a minute, an idea clenched firmly between her teeth. And no subject was ever too weird for her. A woman unlike any other he had ever known.

— The living are annoying, so they weigh less in my heart? That’s your theory?

— It’s a hypothesis, not a theory, and yes. Poor old Harry is dead and laid to rest. I can tell you about his less than charming traits, but I suspect that in a month all I will remember is the Harry that I loved, minus the annoying bits.

Staffen swirls the ice in his glass. Don’t say it; don’t be an idiot. Then the whisky does the talking.

— What about me? How much do I weigh in your heart?

He expects a thrown wineglass or a scowl. Instead, Yvette rewards him with a long loud laugh. The sound of it echoes across the courtyard and draws scowls from the margins. Her laughter fades from everything but her eyes as she gives him an appraising stare.

— You’ve still got balls, John. You always did. But you’re not dead yet, so how can I answer your question? I could give your ego a good stroke and say that I pine for you every day, but that’s not true. We had some amazing years, you and I, until you started indulging in script girls.

— Something I’ll always be sorry about.

She waves it away like a mosquito, somehow keeping the smile on her face.

— Water under the bridge, the bridge has fallen in the river, and always is too long for anyone.

— I’m a good swimmer; better now than I used to be.

Yvette says nothing, turns her head to scan the milling shadows at the edge of the courtyard. John sees Yvette in profile and his heart shakes off two decades as they have no weight or consequence. His brain struggles to keep up.

She turns her head and catches him staring, her eyes grey and serious.

— It’s a good turnout for Harry. Isn’t that what we’re supposed to say?

— Sure, a life measured by the column inches of his obit and how many mourners showed up for the free booze.

Staffen smokes, blows a small cloud above his head, watches it drift across the empty courtyard. He remembers when he and Harry were lean and poor and always dreaming up the next great idea. Old dead Henry Grimes might enjoy this memorial, but young Harry would’ve walked out of any party this boring.

C’mon, John, this place is deader than dead. Grab that good-looker and let’s get outta here. He hears the dead man’s voice in his head and laughs out loud. Yvette arches an eyebrow from under the shadow of her mourning hat.

— I was just thinking how Harry would have hated all of this empty ritual. It’s no wonder the dead want to clutter up my heart. Where the hell else would they go? Certainly not here, not with all this quiet, carefully modulated grief. It’s not even mourning, it’s grief-lite. Easier on the mascara and the neighbors don’t complain about the keening.

Then Yvette’s hand is on his and the rising tirade of his words falls to nothing. When she speaks, her voice is quiet.

— I remember walking through a graveyard in Greece. The tombstones had photographs set into them. They looked like old-fashioned cameos; black-and-white images printed on porcelain ovals. Harry was with me on that trip. He said the photos were ghoulish. I suppose they were, but I also thought they were a good idea. The dead person is fixed in place, bound to their grave by their own image. The loved ones go to visit, light the candles, tidy up, and then leave the dead behind when they go home.

— They leave the dead behind, but they don’t forget.

— I suppose that’s right. It’s as if we’ve lost the rituals that hold the dead in place. When I go to an old cemetery, I feel the presence of all those departed souls. Not very scientific, I know, but I do love an old cemetery.

— As if I could forget the two of us wandering around Père Lachaise in Paris.

— Yes, it was dismal and rainy and cold. You wanted to find Oscar Wilde and I was looking for Edith Piaf.

There was a stir and murmur amongst the black suits and dresses. Staffen turns to look over his shoulder.

— It looks like they’re closing the bar. Shall I fetch you another glass of wine?

— No thanks, three glasses of red on an empty stomach. If I stop now, I’ll remember what happens next.

He turns back and is trapped by her grey eyes. Fear and longing mix and swirl in his chest, pushing away the warmth of the whisky. Then his heart elbows aside the fear and makes room for the longing.

— What does happen next?

— I think we bid Harry a fond farewell and find a taxi.

Yvette rises from her chair and John is quick to do the same. She slides a black shawl across her shoulders, looks at him and smiles. He crooks an elbow. She slips her arm through his and speaks to the sun and sky.

Au Revoir, Harry. Bon voyage.

He feels the pressure of her hand on his wrist and finds his own words.

Adios, Harry. Vaya con Dios.

He looks into Yvette’s eyes and two decades fly past him and swirl away into the sunlight. A long moment passes before he is able to move.

Then Yvette and John are walking across the red earthen tiles of the courtyard, arm in arm as a couple. When they reach the shaded cloister, the murder of chic crows parts to allow them passage.

Marco Etheridge lives and writes in Vienna, Austria. His short fiction has been featured in many reviews and journals in Canada, The UK, and the USA. Notable recent credits include: Coffin Bell, In Parentheses, The Thieving Magpie, Ligeia Magazine, The First Line, After Happy Hour Review, Scarlet Leaf Review, Dream Noir, The Opiate Magazine, Cobalt Press, Literally Stories, and Blue Moon Review, amongst many others. His non-fiction work has been featured at Jonah Magazine, The Metaworker, and Route 7. Marco’s third novel, “Breaking the Bundles,” is available now. Learn more about Marco at https://www.marcoetheridgefiction.com/.

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Blow Your House Down is a powerful testimony about the ways our culture seeks to cage women in traditional narratives of self-sacrifice and erasure. Frangello uses her personal story to examine the place of women in contemporary society: the violence they experience, the rage they suppress, the ways their bodies often reveal what they cannot say aloud, and finally, what it means to transgress “being good” in order to reclaim your own life.

Pick up a copy at Bookshop.org or Amazon.

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Fiction, Fiction Fridays, Gender & Sexuality, Guest Posts

In the Flesh of an Apple

April 2, 2021
apple

By Mercury-Marvin Sunderland

Julius bit into a big red apple. He was groggy, and it was morning. He was lying around in his on-campus apartment at Portland State University, trying to ignore the cramping in his uterus yet again. He got them fairly often, and would try to medicate himself with weed occasionally. He tried not to do it because he didn’t want to be as addicted to it as he was in high school. Provided, he didn’t want to be addicted to weed in the first place, but cutting down on it was the first step.

It had been years since he’d last had his period. When he’d started testosterone it had thankfully stopped the bleeding, but he was still getting the cramps. For a lot of people, starting HRT meant that it took away both the bleeding and the cramps, but for others, it wasn’t so fortunate. However, Julius was doing his best to just be grateful for what he had, and he knew that there were many people who didn’t get the privilege to start testosterone in the first place. He was just starting to get stubble and that was exciting. His voice was just getting deep.

Just think positive, Julius, he reminded himself. Think positive.

When he was a freshman in high school he read online that eating an apple every morning had caffeinated qualities. That was probably bullshit but he’d gotten into a huge habit of eating apples every morning ever since. He liked to eat the entire fruit, core, and stem. It pissed off his friends but seeing their priceless reactions only encouraged him to do it even more. Besides, the cyanide in apple seeds isn’t really enough to kill anyone, anyway. They taste like almonds.

Ignoring the way that his pain was literally making him aware of where his ovaries were, he got to the kitchen and made his morning coffee. He grabbed a Nature Valley bar and some slices of disgusting bootleg Kraft Singles. If you thought Kraft Singles couldn’t get any worse, you’re wrong. You can find bootlegs at the dollar store that try to be Kraft Singles but somehow manage to taste even worse. Julius wasn’t much of a chef, and didn’t have much money to buy his own groceries. He just knew that he needed the starch and protein, and that he was going to take what he could get.

He noticed that these packages of bootleg Kraft Singles claimed to be swiss cheese, but it had absolutely no holes in it. That drove him bonkers but he ate it anyway. He hated to peel off the plastic but he never had the energy to cook.

He got dressed in jeans, sneakers, and a Legend of Zelda t-shirt. He hated morning classes but he had to get to his 9 AM computer programming class before it was too late. He grabbed his powder blue backpack and headed outside.

When he got outside there was melting snow on the ground. Portland doesn’t get much snow but it was well past the point where snow was exciting anymore. People thought it was weird that he didn’t wear a coat too often, but nobody really seemed to think much of it.

When he was a freshman in high school he once ate an apple that tasted exactly like water. He’d never eaten an apple like that again but somehow it managed to be one of the most unpleasant things he’d ever eaten. Which isn’t to say that water doesn’t taste good, or that there aren’t gross mushy apples which would taste worse.

The taste of water just doesn’t feel appropriate in the flesh of an apple. It needs that sweet sugar.

Mercury-Marvin Sunderland (he/him) is a transgender autistic gay man from Seattle with Borderline Personality Disorder. He currently attends the Evergreen State College and works for Headline Poetry & Press. He’s been published by University of Amsterdam’s Writer’s Block, UC Riverside’s Santa Ana River Review, UC Santa Barbara’s Spectrum, and The New School’s The Inquisitive Eater. His lifelong dream is to become the most banned author in human history. He’s @Romangodmercury on Instagram, Facebook, RedBubble, and Twitter.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

This past year has been remarkable, in the best and worst of ways. (Her)oics Anthology is a collection of essays by women about the lived pandemic experience. Documenting the experiences of women both on the front lines and in their private lives, this book is an important record of the power, strength and ingenuity of women. 

Pick up a copy at Bookshop.org or Amazon.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Anti-racist resources, because silence is not an option

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

 

Click here for all things Jen

Family, Fiction, Fiction Fridays, Grief, Guest Posts

The Sussman Service

March 26, 2021

by Roz Weisberg

At Rachel’s first funeral for her father’s Uncle Milton, her mother leaned over and whispered, “Promise me when I die you won’t put your father on top of me. I’ll come back to haunt you.” Rachel nodded yes. She was ten. Ten years later, Rachel arranged the open casket, lavish spray of roses and lilies, and the details to make her mother look like a version of her alive self for the open casket. A hundred and fifty people moved from the chapel to the graveside where her mother’s coffin was lowered into the ground. Standing at attention, Rachel waited for her mother to scream from below reminding her of the consequences of breaking her promise.

Ten years and three months later, a closed casket, a modest spray of roses, a condensed twenty-minute graveside service where Rachel’s friends who never met her parents attended the burial of her father. Two groundskeepers wore blue jumpsuits and stood at the head and foot of the casket guiding it into another box as if it were a part of a Russian nesting doll set. The park insisted on the extra concrete box to protect the earth and preserve the casket, but Rachel thought it made it easier to mow the lawn. A third groundskeeper plunged the shovel into the mound of dirt. The rabbi recited the Kaddish, but Rachel could only hear the ringing of her mother’s shrill voice, “I told you not to put your father on top of me, I get claustrophobic.”

The rabbi’s words morphed together as he stepped up to Rachel in his black fedora and tore the pinned black ribbon over her heart. He stepped aside. When Rachel didn’t react, he cleared his throat and spoke her name. She didn’t quite hear him, her ears had been plugged for days, but followed his gesture. Stepping toward the graveside, the crisp air and bright bleached sunlight reminded her that it would soon be daylight savings though she wasn’t sure when the clocks were supposed to be turned back. She peered into the grave at the white concrete slab before taking the shovel and scooping up a blade’s worth of dirt. Steadying the wooden handle, she guided it over the hole, and with a last inhale gave her mother one last beat to air her discontent. Nothing. She flipped the shovel over; the rocks of dirt exploded and scattered against the cement. She plunged the shovel back into the dirt and returned to the white plastic folding chair.

The rabbi squinted, transfixed by something moving through the thin gathering. A hunched over old man in gray slacks shuffled up to the grave. His blazer too big, the arms to long. His small bald head sat on his shoulders as if he had no neck. Without turning around, he grabbed the shovel and scooped up some dirt, but the weight made him unsteady. One of the groundskeepers stepped out from behind the mound as the man coughed up and swallowed phlegm in the back of his throat and hoisted the shovel. It slipped from his grip, toppling into the grave. Before the old man fell forward, the groundskeeper pulled him back. The old man fell backwards on the groundskeeper.

Everyone gasped, their bodies jolted, the flimsy chairs legs gave out, and the first row collapsed like a row of dominos. The rabbi watched, frozen at the lectern. Rachel landed on her side. The other groundskeeper spoke into a walkie-talkie while another moved to help people stand up, dust themselves off and reset their chairs. The rabbi found his voice. “Is everyone alright?”

Rachel looked at the old man as she stood up. “Excuse me? Who are you?”

“Excuse you. Who the hell are you?” The groundskeeper had helped the old man stand.

It sounded as if the old man were speaking underwater. Rachel closed her eyes and took an audible breath, “This is Bernie Sussman’s funeral. My mother was Shirley.” Her own voice sound muted.

At the base of the hill a golf cart pulled up between the mourner’s cars. The driver in his blue suit got out and trekked up the hill.

“This is Stanley Leven’s funeral. Stanley was my wife’s second cousin. She couldn’t come, this hill woulda killed her.”

The man from the golf cart stepped up and introduced himself as the director.

“I’m here for Stanley’s funeral. Where the hell is Stanley?” The old man noticed the groundskeeper for the first time.

“I’m not sure sir. Why don’t I give you a ride and we can let these people continue their service?” The groundskeeper passed the old man’s arm to the director.

“Now, wait a minute. Let me think.” He tilted his head downward “Sussman you say?” He shook his head back and forth as if reading through an imaginary rolodex. “No, I don’t think I knew any Sussmans.” He tried pulling his arm away. “Must be the wrong funeral.” The old man took a last look in the hole, “That doesn’t look good.” He grabbed the director’s arm as if it were the bar on a walker and they waddled down the hill.

Rachel stepped to where the old man had stood and looked down. A groundskeeper grabbed a rake and maneuvered its teeth to pull up the shovel. Somehow, the metal edge of the shovel had chipped and cracked the concrete slab. A groundskeeper mumbled into his radio. Another golf cart arrived, another director climbed the hill.

The rabbi suggested he finish the service and offered final condolences, thanking the attendees. The mourners lingered as the director and groundskeepers conferred in a huddle. Rachel joined, glancing into to pit. The director explained, he’d never seen concrete crack like that, but he’d called for a replacement. Rachel was free to wait, but they weren’t sure how long it might take.

Rachel crossed her arms, the ringing in her ears echoed, “You promised me!”

The director tried to usher Rachel along, but she stood her ground. “I’ll go on my way as if nothing ever happened if you could reverse them. Put him in first and her on top.” She couldn’t gage the volume of her own voice though there some heads turned her way.

Her request was met with blank stares. The director mumbled into his radio and conferred with the groundskeepers before agreeing to the accommodation. Rachel turned to leave. Taking in the view of the paved LA River bed, her ears popped, the shrill ringing in her ear stopped as the groundskeepers lowered the crane and raised her mother’s concrete box.

Roz Weisberg is a recovering movie producer who went back to school and received her MFA at Antioch University, Los Angeles. She currently teaches screenwriting at UCLA Extension, is a private writing coach/development editor and a writing specialist at Antioch.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

This past year has been remarkable, in the best and worst of ways. (Her)oics Anthology is a collection of essays by women about the lived pandemic experience. Documenting the experiences of women both on the front lines and in their private lives, this book is an important record of the power, strength and ingenuity of women. 

Pick up a copy at Bookshop.org or Amazon.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Anti-racist resources, because silence is not an option

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

 

Click here for all things Jen

Bullying, Fiction Fridays, Guest Posts

77, and Still

March 19, 2021
ribbon

By Ceresa Morsaint

It’s a chilly first night of Autumn, and she’s sitting on the bench hidden behind the playscape, where no one has to watch her cry. She adjusts the hat on her head, trying to keep her ears from freezing. She tries not to break her fragile nails, or agitate the arthritis in her right shoulder. And as she does, she feels a familiar ache in her arms, remembering the way she’d undo the ribbons in her hair, and leave the red, satin strips on the bench of the playground in her younger years. Mother would be so disappointed when she got home.

“I lost them playing tag!” She’d cry.

“Why do I even bother with the ribbons, Maria? Always ripping your stockings and losing your ribbons. You should be ashamed!” Her mother would curse in her Northern Irish accent. It made her laugh sometimes.

She wonders if her mother knew then what was really going on. Older boys don’t like girls with ribbons in their hair. She watches the swingset sway back and forth in the Autumn wind, and everywhere she goes, she only sees him. Her socks, now warm and fuzzy, were once long and laced. She tried visiting without them once. He didn’t like it.

“You look younger with your socks on. Keep it that way,” he smiled. She didn’t understand. But it made him happy, and so she kept wearing the long, laced, knee-high socks provided by angry catholic nuns from school. His words made her skin crawl.

“He can’t hurt me now,” she says. The words leave her lips and twirl in the air like loose paper. She says it, but why can’t she feel it?

“He’s dead, Maria. He can’t hurt you now.” She says, again. She still does not feel it.

From a distance, there is a crashing sound. A clank, maybe a thud. She jumps so hard, she nearly falls off the park bench and onto the cold cement floor.

“Christ, Maria.” She says to herself, “Should be over this by now. It’s only been 67 years, you old fool.” And though she says he can’t hurt her, he can’t even touch her, she’s still afraid. What if his ghost comes to haunt her? What if he’s playing dead to trick her into letting her guard down again?

“No,” she whispers “I’m too old for him, now.” Older boys don’t like girls with grey in their hair.

Ceresa Morsaint is a writer based in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. She studies American Sign Language and writes for a small newspaper, The Siren. Her work has been published in The Book Smuggler’s Den and The Scriblerus. In her spare time, she enjoys baking and reading Frank McCourt novels with her cat, Burt.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

This past year has been remarkable, in the best and worst of ways. (Her)oics Anthology is a collection of essays by women about the lived pandemic experience. Documenting the experiences of women both on the front lines and in their private lives, this book is an important record of the power, strength and ingenuity of women. 

Pick up a copy at Bookshop.org or Amazon.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Anti-racist resources, because silence is not an option

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

 

Click here for all things Jen

Fiction, Fiction Fridays, Guest Posts

Paper Lessons

March 5, 2021
gran

By Maggie Bucholt 

Loretta watched her mother loading packages of toilet paper into a huge cardboard box, then folding yards of wrapping paper patterned with hot-pink roses around the monster parcel. Her mother’s lips twisted in a hateful way as she taped the seams and tied the box with a purple ribbon so dark it was almost black.

“Mom, it’s…” Loretta folded her arms across her chest, wondering if Frances had forgotten her pills—or swallowed too many. She frowned, searching for the right word. She was about to say mean, but thought better of it. “Why not give Gran a nice pocketbook?” She nibbled a cuticle on her thumb. A drop of blood appeared, and she licked it away.

Frances—as Loretta had started referring to her mother in her head—signed her name to the card. Gran’s birthday was Saturday, three days away. Frances tucked the card under the ribbon when she was finished. Skinny arms stuck out of her short-sleeved blouse, and there were deep circles under her eyes. Watching TV news images of wounded soldiers in the jungles of Vietnam kept up her up at night.

Loretta was desperate to leave for college in August, ten months away, ready to start her own life; she had put in her time taking care of Frances. But all she could think about was how her mother would fare when she left. She would have to convince Gran that Frances could live on her own and not have to return to that horrible place. The nurses with their plastic smiles and their squeaky orthopedic shoes, the padded rooms behind the corridor’s locked doors. The first time when Frances had gone away for a “rest,” she had come back subdued. After she returned this time, she had been acting weird, as if they had fried all the normal parts of her brain along with the sick ones.

Ignoring her, Frances stood back and examined her work. “The lady in the Hallmark store said the gift was a hoot. Maybe I should get a job on Newbury Street wrapping fancy presents.” Frances removed the bobby pin from her stringy hair and repinned it. Then she laughed, without joy. Ha, ha, ha. “It’d probably pay more than my job at the card shop.”

“You’re working?”

A job. Proof that her mother was doing well, despite the ridiculous gift. Loretta seesawed between hope and doubt that this job would last any longer than the others Frances had had in the past three years since the last hospital stay. She ticked the jobs off in her head: Saleswoman at Jordan Marsh in Boston, and cashier at the five-and-dime, waitress at the diner on the main street of their suburban town. Frances argued with everyone—supervisors and co-workers, her own mother, and Loretta. She found fault with the downstairs apartment in Gran’s two-family house and brought up every injustice, present and past: the broken change machine at the Laundromat to Gran’s refusal to let her prune the rosebushes to her husband dying young.

“Why not?” Frances said.

“I’m glad, Mom, really.”

“You should be. The sooner we start saving, the sooner we can leave, just you and me, the way we planned.”

“Don’t you get tired of saying the same thing every year?” The walls in the living room were as bare as the day they moved in ten years ago, after her father’s car accident. Don’t bother to hang anything up, Frances had said. We won’t be here long.

Her mother whipped out a large manila envelope from the drawer under the white Formica counter. She waved it near Loretta’s face. “What’s this, huh?”

Loretta snatched the envelope and glanced at the return address. The brochure from the university in Colorado. Would be a good fit, her art teacher had said. “That’s my mail. You know what it is.”

“Still dreaming, are you? Well, stop, because you’re not going. We’re leaving here together.”

“Gran is paying the tuition, paying for everything.”

“Did she tell you what to study too?”

“You never say anything nice about Gran.”

“Because there is nothing nice to say.”

“What about her letting us live here without paying rent, taking care of me when you were… away.”

“You’ll see.”

They glared at each other. Frances was the first to look away, and a moment later the tension lines around her mouth deepened. “Oh, go on. Get to your room. You spend enough time studying in there anyway. Brush your hair, will you? And stop biting those nails.”

“At least I wash my hair.” Loretta ran her hand over her thick, long hair that never lay flat. “At least, I… ” Worry about what will happen to you.

Loretta closed the bedroom door, grateful to be alone. The last of the sunlight filtered in between the blinds, casting dark bars onto the beige rug. A car horn beeped twice, a sharp sound that echoed down the street. She peeked through the blinds. Old Mr. Tierney pulling his Buick out of his driveway. The beeps were his farewell before driving to the VFW to drink away the pain of losing his son in Vietnam. Oh, she hated this crummy neighborhood, and especially Mr. Tierney’s mousy wife who asked in a pitying tone, “How is your poor mother?” as if she were ready to hear the truth. That gossip would murmur something falsely reassuring before turning away, like everyone Loretta had tried to confide in.

Father Donovan, she avoided too; he pretended not to understand her predicament, and whenever he stopped her to talk about faith or about the children’s art program where she had taught the previous two summers, his breath smelled as though he hadn’t brushed his teeth for a week. No, the faith she had was in herself, and the only thing she liked about mass was watching the votives that burned as insistently as her desire to leave home.

She set the college materials on the blue-gingham quilt and went to the bureau. Under the bottom drawer, she felt for the fat envelope taped there, savings from her two summers of working and from birthday gifts from Gran. Eight hundred and fifty dollars and twenty cents. The bills were crisp, new, like the life she envisioned far away from Frances. She replaced the money and slid the college materials under the mattress with the others before fixing the sheet, hospital cornered, the way Gran had taught her.

In the living room, Frances had her legs tucked up under her on the sofa, transfixed in front of the TV. Her cigarette case rested on the lace doily that hid the threadbare arm. A plume of smoke from her cigarette wafted up toward the ceiling.

“Where you going?”

“Upstairs.”

**

Loretta entered her grandmother’s apartment without knocking. The living room smelled of lemon polish, and the crowded apartment had everything Loretta and her mother’s didn’t: gold-framed bucolic scenes on the walls, heavy red-brocade drapes on the windows with sheer curtains underneath, a china cabinet with Waterford crystal, and a grandfather clock with handsome Roman numerals, Loretta’s favorite.

“Gran?”

“In the bedroom, sweetheart,” her grandmother called.

Her grandmother sat at a dressing table with a three-paneled mirror, smoothing cold cream over her plump cheeks and under her eyes, lifting, then straightening her silver-frame eyeglasses. The bottom of Gran’s tent-like, navy-blue dress, the kind that hid her fat stomach and thighs, grazed the carpeting.

“You hungry?” Gran said. “I was about to start dinner.”

“Mom’s making spaghetti,” Loretta said, not meeting her eyes. She hated to lie, but it was easier to let Gran think that her mother was able to boil water.

Loretta ran her fingertips over the polished dressing table with its little atomizers of fragrances, the cobalt-blue Evening in Paris bottle, and the tubes of lipsticks on a glass tray. The thought of seeing Paris, especially the Impressionist paintings, Degas, Monet, Cezanne, that she had read about in books, made her smile. It was a dream she hadn’t shared with Gran yet.

She perched on the edge of the bed and leaned back, resting on her hands. The deep green comforter was silky beneath her palms. Watching the rhythmic strokes of her grandmother’s hands putting on lotion was a soothing ritual that had started in her childhood. Gran would pick up Loretta’s small hand, press it to her lotioned cheek, then to her lips for a noisy kiss. It made Loretta laugh when she wanted to cry. Everything will be fine, Gran seemed to say. It was Gran who sewed the ripped shoulder of her Raggedy Ann doll, and washed and ironed the small dress and white apron. Gran who had helped her with homework. And it was Gran who had given her the little booklet after Loretta noticed pink spots on her underpants when was she was twelve.

Gran told her a story she had heard a gazillion times, and Loretta wondered if her grandmother would begin forgetting more and more things, the way old people did. It was the story of how Gran survived the death of her young husband so many years ago. Unlike Frances, Gran was quick to remind her, she had found a job in a factory, at a time when not many women worked. Eventually, Gran had met and married a widower, the grandfather Loretta knew, before being widowed again.

“I had to do what was best for me.” Gran gazed at Loretta over the tops of her glasses. “You, too, have to figure things out, think of yourself.”

“Yes, Gran.” Loretta started to chew on a fingernail, before her grandmother gave her a warning look. She dropped her hand.

“Because no one else will.” Gran turned this way and that in the mirror, examining her wrinkled face before wiping the excess cream from her misshapen arthritic fingers. “How are things at school?”

“A’s in English, history, and biology.” Loretta plopped back onto the bed, pleased that her grandmother listened carefully as she talked. But an A- in math. She vowed to study harder, when she wasn’t taking care of Frances—she didn’t do sports or afterschool clubs. “I asked each teacher what was expected for me to get an A, and then I made a list and completed the extra assignments.”

She never mentioned she ate alone in the cafeteria or the bitchy girls who never invited her to their tables. She imagined the way they saw her: a too-tall girl who kept to herself and painted posters for school plays. Instead she talked about the library book with the glossy photos of the works of Monet.

Gran nodded approvingly. “You’re serious, not like your mother, marrying your father before she graduated. She could have finished college, if she let me help her. Stubborn, too stubborn she was. You know, your mother was always… different. I suppose losing your father was too much. Goodness, the shock was too much for me.”

“Mom is making an effort,” she said, feeling hopeful. It wasn’t as though she didn’t love Frances; her mother was the only parent she had left, not counting Gran. “Mom’s ….” She stopped. She would tell Gran about the job at the card store only if it lasted more than a week.

Loretta jumped up and from behind, wrapped her long arms around her grandmother’s bosomy frame, conscious of her height—tall like her father, Gran always said. She put her cheek to her grandmother’s and rocked her back and forth, eyeing both their reflections in the mirror. Gran, her short gray hair done up at the beauty parlor every week; and she, Loretta, with hair ballooning around her thin face, was about to start the rest of her life.

“Oh, you’re being so cool, Gran, about college and all.”

“I want you to begin your life the right way. Plenty of good colleges close by, in Boston.”

“Around here?” Her voice faltered. They had never talked about where she would attend college, and she was taken aback. “A university out west is what I was thinking. I’ve never been there, of course.” She was excited by the prospect of studying in a place she had never been, of traveling to Paris after college graduation. “I don’t know about Boston.”

“Think about it.” Gran patted her arm.

Later, Loretta sat on the back porch steps with the sketchbook and charcoal pencil for the preliminary drawing of the cardinal. A lone leaf zigzagged toward the ground. The bird in the denuded maple tree cocked its head, as though it were waiting for her to begin. A sketch for her senior art portfolio. Focus. She inhaled deeply. Focus. Empty your mind, the art teacher said, when she struggled with a sketch in the art room. Let your hand work its magic over the paper.

But she was unable to draw, her thoughts ricocheting from dissuading Frances on Gran’s present to convincing Gran about Colorado to improving the application essay so she would be accepted. Tomorrow she would show Gran the brochure and talk up the Art History major. Long after the cardinal flew away, she stayed where she was, staring into the autumn twilight.

**

The following afternoon, Loretta was home from school late, and when she heard Gran’s voice in the living room, her insides somersaulted. Gran’s birthday was two days away. Why was she here? She jabbed her jacket onto the brass hook. Gran hadn’t been inside the apartment in months.

Frances was on the sofa, legs crossed, the couch springs squeaking in rhythm with her wobbling foot. She had on a flower-print dress that Loretta hadn’t seen her wear in a long time. The red lipstick, smeared outside the natural contour of her lips, looked as though it been applied by a three-year-old. Frances’ tremulous smile was so wide, Loretta thought her face might crack.

Gran, her posture straight as a knife, sat on a kitchen chair; the sofa was too low for Gran. Gran shot Loretta an accusing look. Why didn’t you tell me?

“Loretta sweetheart, isn’t it nice your mother is working again?”

Frances turned to Loretta and raised an eyebrow. The eyebrow almost reached the uneven part in her hair.

“Yes, it is.” Loretta glanced nervously at the mammoth box with the dark-purple ribbon on the TV console. She still had to figure out what to do and quickly. She tugged down the hem of her sweater and perched next to Frances on the sagging seat, smoothing her plaid skirt over her knees.

“You feel up to doing this, this job?” Gran grasped the strap of the big black purse in her lap. She snapped the clasp open and closed, open and closed. Click, click. Click, click.

“She’s doing fine, aren’t you, Mom?” But Loretta could see her mother didn’t appear fine at all and, worse, Gran could too. Frances’s gaze darted around the room, and she pressed a folded piece of paper into her lap.

“I wouldn’t have taken the job otherwise, Mother,” Frances said, a slow flush spreading up her neck to her face.

“Now Frances, I didn’t mean anything by it.” Gran winked at Loretta. In her own way, Gran was trying.

  “Don’t start, Mother,” Frances said. “That’s not why I invited you in.”

“No, then why did you?” Gran gazed at Frances over her glasses that had fallen to the middle of her nose.

Frances’s foot bobbed faster. And Loretta tensed. She leaned over and whispered, “Don’t give Gran the present. Please.” Her mother struggled away from her.

“To say that we will be moving out as soon as I save some money,” Frances said.

Loretta groaned inwardly. She had heard the argument many, many, many times before. But at least she hadn’t given her the birthday present. Don’t say anymore, Mom. Don’t.

Gran seemed to consider this without rancor and adjusted the purse on her lap. “I see. And what apartment do you think you can afford, on a card-store salary?”

“Here’s the budget,” Frances said, her tone triumphant. She unfolded the paper and dropped into Gran’s lap. “An apartment’s for rent a few blocks from here.”

“Mom.” A flare of hope sparked in her chest.

Gran adjusted her glasses and made a show of studying the numbers. “This isn’t going to work.” Her words sliced the air.

Frances’s lipsticked mouth worked, but no sound came out. She sank onto the sofa and crossed her legs, staring into space. Loretta could tell by her grandmother’s stricken gaze that she knew she had gone too far and didn’t know the way back.

“Gran, come on, it’s a start,” Loretta said quietly. “You could help with a plan.”

Frances shot up, and before Loretta could whisper in her ear that this wasn’t the right time, Frances snatched the huge birthday present from the console and placed it at Gran’s feet. Frances’s smile was as gleeful as a mischievous child.

“For your birthday, Mother,” Frances said. “A couple of days early.”

“Why, thank you, Frances,” Gran said. A look of astonishment, then happiness flickered across her plump cheeks.

Loretta slid her moist palms down her skirt as Gran tore off the dark ribbon and wrapping paper. Gran sorted through the packages of toilet paper as if she were searching for something. Was there a real present hidden among the paper that she was missing?

  “A little joke. Right, Mom?” Loretta, her face hot, tried to laugh.

“I don’t see the humor.” Gran’s thin lips pursed.

“You get what you deserve, you mean old thing!” Frances started laughing, the same mirthless sound as when she had wrapped the toilet paper.

“Mom, stop.” Loretta tried to put her arms around her thin shoulders, but Frances pushed back in an irritated way, a smirk on her face.

Gran stood up to leave, trembling.

“Gran, wait.” Loretta was desperate to do something, anything to lessen the animosity. She ran to her bedroom for the bright yellow box with the black fancy script, the Jean Nate gift set she had bought, and at the last moment stuffed the university brochure into her skirt pocket.

“Happy birthday, Gran.” Loretta handed her the present. “I, I didn’t get a chance to wrap it.”

“Thank you, sweetheart.” Gran swayed a little, holding her purse and the yellow-and-black box. “You’re a good girl, a very smart girl.”

Gran had fixed her gaze on Frances, and Loretta stiffened. “Gran, let’s go.”

“Which is why Loretta will do well at college,” Gran said.

“Mind your own business, Mother.”

“Won’t you do well, Loretta?” Gran said, turning to her, with fiery eyes.

Loretta wished she were outside sketching the cardinal. Or unpacking her things in the dorm at the university in Colorado. Or painting the long view of the Eiffel Tower from the banks of the Seine.

“Come on, I’ll walk you up,” she said, and steered Gran toward the door.

Upstairs, she stood near the grandfather clock and trimmed a fingernail with her teeth. For once, Gran didn’t scold her about biting her nails. Gran moved slowly to hang her coat in the closet. Neither of them spoke. Gran seemed to collapse into the dining room chair.

“Mom’s doing OK, she does have that job.” Loretta hoped she sounded convincing.

Gran sighed and opened her arms, and Loretta moved in for an awkward embrace. She could smell Gran’s lavender-scented lotion.

“Did you think about what I said? About Boston?” Gran ran her hand over the polished surface to the table, brushing away imaginary crumbs.

Loretta pulled out the colorful brochure. “Colorado, see for yourself. The college has an Art History major and I…”

Gran shook her head. “Come now, sweetheart, did you think I wouldn’t be the one to decide? I will be paying for everything.”

“I didn’t realize that meant I couldn’t go where I want.”

“Look at you, getting all upset. I’m your champion, sweetheart. All I’m saying is that the college has to be closer to home.”

Loretta shifted from one foot to another, feeling miserable. “Because that’s best for you, Gran,” she spat. “That’s not fair.”

“Not for me, either.” Gran gave her a wan smile. “I can’t take care of her forever. I’m not getting any younger.”

Back downstairs, Loretta emptied a can of tomato soup into a pot and added water, trying to swallow the panic that stuck in her throat. The blue flame flickered under the pot. She had fooled herself into thinking she would be free, first at college, then after graduation. Free to do what she pleased, live wherever she liked. The realization that she could not left her cold. She stirred the soup with a wooden spoon. The soup sloshed over the sides. Mom had to eat something, had to feel better. She hoped the aroma would lure Frances into the kitchen. At the table, she opened her loose-leaf and turned to the unfinished college essay for Colorado, the one giving her the most trouble, perhaps because it was her first choice. Empty your mind, focus. But she couldn’t shake off the dread. Of course Gran expected her to take care of Frances when Gran no longer could. There was no one else.

“So what do you talk about with your grandmother when you’re up there?” Frances stood in the doorway, one hand on her hip. Loretta was surprised that Frances seemed fine, as though all she needed was a few moments rest to clear her head and change her vengeful mood.

“School, stuff.” She shoved the essay into her loose-leaf. She had gotten good at hiding the truth. The soup gurgled and the tomato-y scent filled the kitchen, and she stirred the pot. She had expected shouting, angry words from her mother, not this. An argument she could deal with. A self-pitying mother, she couldn’t.

Her mother lit a cigarette and shook the match until the flame died. She inhaled deeply, and smoke shot out of the side of her mouth. “You’re going to leave, aren’t you?”

Loretta didn’t answer. She got out two white bowls from the cupboard, ladled steaming soup into one, and set it on the table. Frances slipped into a chair and balanced her cigarette on the lip of the glass ashtray. She dipped the spoon into the soup. Halfway to her lips, she dropped the spoon back into the bowl, splashing soup all over the table.

“Mom, you’ll do fine.” Loretta wiped up the soup with a wet sponge. Another lie. Shame washed over her. “You can save money like you said and move, if that’s what you want to do,” she said, wishing she could believe her own words. “You don’t need me.”

Frances sucked on her cigarette, eyeing Loretta. “That store needs a better manager. I told the woman she could ask me whatever she wanted, that I’d help her run the place. She got all huffy.”

Loretta filled a bowl for herself and tasted the soup. The soup had a bitter, metallic taste, as if she had boiled nickels along with the tomatoes. She listened to her mother complain about the smart-alecky salesmen and the lumpy grilled cheese sandwich she had for lunch at the diner where she used to waitress. At last Frances stubbed out her cigarette, and all Loretta could feel was relief that the terrible moment, when she feared hearing the words I do need you, had passed.

**

At lunchtime the next day, Loretta shifted in a hard-seated chair at the guidance counselor’s office, one of two chairs that faced Mr. Crowley’s desk. The desk was cluttered with pens, pencils, forms, and a half-eaten, smelly tuna sandwich. Piles of college catalogues were lined up with precision on the floor.

“I’m having trouble with this essay for Colorado, my top choice.” Loretta pushed the two-page draft for the university in Colorado across his desk. “Could you take a look at it?”

“Certainly, give me a moment,” he said. He was a short man with a round face and a snub nose. The kids called him Porky behind his back. He jotted notes in the margins. After a few moments, he reviewed the essay, point by point, and suggestions to add why sketching and painting were so important to her.

“I have no doubt you’ll be admitted to a good college with your grades.” As he talked, he rubbed at a stain on his green-striped tie. “Have a backup plan, besides Colorado. Did you want me to review the other essays and applications?”

“I’ve already finished three.” Loretta tucked the essay into her loose-leaf. “They’re at home.”

“Good girl. I know they’re lengthy.”

“You, ah, said something about financial aid, when I came in before. My grandmother offered to pay but I’m not sure about.…”

“It can’t hurt to apply for financial aid, no matter what your resources. Colleges offer grants based on aptitude as well as need.”

He handed her a thick packet, and she listened carefully as he explained the different federal grants and work study. She thanked him and stuffed the daunting paperwork into her loose-leaf, hoping she wouldn’t have to fill out those applications too; she still hoped to persuade Gran about Colorado.

“I tried telephoning your mother, so she could be here.” Mr. Crowley nodded at the empty chair.

“She’s working, Loretta said quickly. “She won’t have time.”

“I can help you start filling out the aid forms, if you like. Just come in again.”

Back home after school, Loretta opened the front door and heard the soft, unmistakable sound of weeping coming from Frances’s bedroom. She dropped her bag and struggled out of her jacket. Disappointment knifed her insides. Frances had been fired. Why else would her mother be home before five o’clock? She ran down the hall and pressed her ear to Frances’s door. She knocked lightly.

“Mom?” She tried the doorknob. Locked. She waited, resting her forehead against the doorframe. “It doesn’t matter,” she said through the crack, willing herself to sound upbeat. “You know I love you, right?”

The wailing turned to loud sniffles.

“You can find something else. Mom?”

In the kitchen, she sipped a glass of milk and nibbled an Oreo. She would have to help Frances get past this setback, find the right job. Only she didn’t know how. The scribbling on the pad by the telephone caught her eye. An enormous X crossed out Mr. Crowley. A panicky feeling swept over her, and she hurried to Frances’s door. She stood outside, biting a nail, contemplating what she could say, something to soften the truth. But nothing came to her. She sighed. Frances would have to hold her own when she was gone.

Loretta opened the door to her own room, bent on making Mr. Crowley’s suggestions to her essay, and flipped on the light switch. She stood stock-still. Her sketches were torn from the wall, her dresser drawers emptied and left half open, her sweaters and underwear strewn on the floor, along with the blue-checked quilt. Balled up in the corner were her bed sheets, and her mattress hung off the box spring at an odd angle.

A pile of cut-up paper and the kitchen scissors were on top of the naked mattress. She picked up a sliver of paper with her name still visible. The essays and carefully filled-out applications had been shredded into millions of pieces. Her heart banged against her ribcage. She rushed to the bureau and pulled out the bottom drawer. The thick envelope with the money was still taped to the bottom. She shoved the envelope into her waistband of her skirt. She ran down the hall and pounded on Frances’ door with her fist—bam, bam, bam—until the side of her hand ached.

“How could you?” she shouted. Her pulse drummed in her ears. “I’ve always helped you, been on your side.”

No answer. She rattled the knob in frustration, picturing how Frances, her face blotchy red with rage, had overturned everything, cut all the paper with the same expression of gleeful revenge she had worn when presenting Gran with the monster package of toilet paper.

She flew up the stairs to Gran’s, her chest heaving, but at the top, she stopped and stared at the closed door. A college closer to home, Gran had said. I will be paying for everything. She gripped the banister, sick at heart and frightened. When had she ever been able to change Gran’s mind about anything? Gran would expect her to stay after graduation, too, find a job, and do what she had always done to keep Frances out of that dreadful place. Loretta turned and started downstairs as though she were sleepwalking.

In the apartment, she picked up the sketchpad and charcoal pencil and went out to the back porch. The sun was low in the sky and she gulped the cold, fresh air. She sank onto the wooden steps. From the Tierneys next door, she heard the grating sound of a metal rake and the rustle of brittle leaves. She glanced over. Mrs. Tierney was focused on clearing a path to the street. The lifeless leaves had been raked into organized piles.

The envelope in her waistband pressed into her side, and she placed a protective hand over the money for a moment, her mind churning with everything she had to do—she would ask Mr. Crowley for help with the paperwork—and the lies that she would have to tell until she left. She would learn to forgive herself for leaving Frances, the way she had learned everything else that Gran had taught her.

She opened the sketchpad and smoothed a new sheet of paper. The solitary cardinal appeared, bright red against the maple’s dark bough, and seemed to watch her. She assessed the cardinal, making tentative strokes at first. The strokes became bolder, deeper as the image of the cardinal took shape on the page. The body, the sharp beak, the unblinking black eyes. Then she drew the bird’s legs, fragile but strong.

Maggie Bucholt a graduate of the MFA in Writing program at Vermont College of Fine Arts, and was awarded a fellowship at the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts to work on her novel. A story, “Deer’s Leap,” was a finalist in the Arts & Letters: Journal of Contemporary Culture fiction contest. Her credits include an essay, “Rhyming Action in Alice Munro Short Stories,” in The Writer’s Chronicle, and “Death and the Desire to Live Deliberately,” in Desire: Women Write About Wanting, published by Seal Press.

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A book about tears? Sign us up! Some have called this the Bluets of crying and we tend to agree. This book is unexpected and as much a cultural survey of tears as a lyrical meditation on why we cry. 

Pick up a copy at Bookshop.org or Amazon.

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Anti-racist resources, because silence is not an option

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Click here for all things Jen

Fiction Fridays, Guest Posts

Deus ex Machina

February 19, 2021
foggy road brenda

By Richard Weems

Steve and Brenda had come separately to the same conclusion: they both wanted out of their marriage, which they had honed over the last three years into a science of spending as little time alone together as possible. Steve had basketball at the Y, Brenda had spin classes. Never an argument when one stayed late at the office. Separate televisions. He kissed her on the temple when he climbed into bed. She squeezed his wrist. Movie nights always with friends. During sex, they focused only on their individual needs. No pets, not even fish. Nothing that couldn’t be easily designated as his or hers. When they planned poorly and were stuck having dinner together, she commented favorably on the bordeaux he’d researched and breathed properly; he hummed approval at every spoonful of her Grand Marnier souffle.

They had both decided to break the news during their annual drive north to her folks in South Greeley, the one place no one expected them to spend time together. She had her sisters and mother to giggle and drink mimosas with, her nephews and nieces to take out for ice cream. Steve discussed baseball with his father-in-law, who was a tiresome optimist about the Rockies, or volunteered for every errand so he could drive around Cheyenne and marvel at the ways it fell short of being a proper city.

But with a three and a half hour drive in front of them, each had to strategize the optimal approach to most effectively end their marriage. Brenda worried she’d back out once faced with Steve’s hushed anger, so she burned her boat, so to speak. As soon as they merged onto route 25, she asked Steve for the ETA. He pointed his chin at the GPS. “I’ll let them know,” she said, but instead she texted her sisters and mother, Big news, and refused to respond to their question marks and interrobangs, to force herself to blurt before they arrived: “Steve, I’ll stay in Greeley while you move out.” Maddy had long suggested, in less than subtle ways, that Brenda could do better (“So, Brenny, when you’re looking for your next man…”). Mom was a tougher read, but when Zabby, the oldest, once confided that she felt entrenched with Ken, her  know-it-all chiropractor who refused to go anywhere he couldn’t be the center of attention, Mom spoke into her glass:

“Not until Sid and Sylvia,” their twin teens, “start college, I hope.”

So Brenda wasn’t worried about her family’s reaction, but still, with every mile marker, she felt her resolve weaken, until she wondered what news she could drum up when Maddy reached through the car window and squeezed her wrist with expectation.

Steve played the audiobook of a spy thriller to pass the time, but they had barely passed Colorado Springs, a third of the way, when he could no longer stand the reader’s tiresome lilt during the so-called action sequences, where another smartmouthed operative with yet another weapon speciality showed up every twenty minutes on the dot. He had planned to start his speech when they’d reached the halfway mark (“Brenda, you know I love you and I’m glad we got married…”), to give them time to work through the emotional guff and have things arranged rationally when he dropped her off in front of her parents’ and headed back on his own. He hated when she cried. He always felt duty-bound to comfort her, and being the cause of her tears could be too much for him. Every minute of silence felt like they were back to dating–another moment of fear about taking the plunge and saying what he thought (five miles ago) he should have started saying by now. She was even on her phone, scrolling and grinning at someone else.

***

The first sign of trouble was the oncoming traffic with their headlights at full blast, their hoods and tops glistening, their wipers clearing bactrian humps on the windshields. The forecast had called for a forty percent chance of storms, but that was typical for July, especially in this humidity.

In the sun, the oncoming cars gleamed with relief.

“Something’s up ahead,” Steve muttered. Brenda looked up from her phone and squinted as though there was something to see beyond the next overpass.

And suddenly, there was.

It was the kind of storm that generated sudden exclamation points on the doppler–wind, hail, and was that a bump of rotation in the cloud?  That turned the sky green, pelted a path across the highway, and had timed its manifestation when there wasn’t another overpass in miles. Steve settled into a new kind of silence, that of survival, his focus their best hope against the wind that was already nudging their top-heavy jeep. A prefatory lightning bolt elicited a close-mouthed gasp from Brenda as she gripped the oh shit handle on the ceiling. Steve reverted to Driver’s Ed days and clasped the wheel at 10 and 2 as they plunged into the fierce weather.

At the smack of wind and fierce ice, Brenda expected to see a Brahma bull out her window. Their Wrangler leaned, but they will disagree to what extent by the time they get to South Greeley: one will say they were a hairsbreadth from permanent disfigurement, the other no worse than a Disney rollercoaster. They will hold hands as squish together in the living room chaise longue and tell her family their conflicting accounts. They will talk over each other, correct each other rudely, kiss and laugh while kissing. They will continue to argue the whole ride home with nary a silent gap and alternate who squeezes whose thigh.

When the cloud released them and the wall of hail ambled to the east, Steve watched it go, unable to unclench his fists, his fight/flight system dialed to eleven. Brenda released the ceiling handle so she could jackhammer her fist into the paltry padding above and scream,

“Again!”

Richard Weems is the author of three short fiction collections: Anything He Wants (finalist for the Eric Hoffer Book Prize), Stark Raving Blue and From Now On, You’re Back. Recent appearances include North American Review, Aquifer, 3Elements Review, Flash Fiction Magazine and Tatterhood Review. Richard lives and teaches in New Jersey.

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Verge, by Lidia Yuknavitch, is out in paperback. These short stories will grip your heart and mind.  The writing is sharp and the empathetic portraits of broken people will stay with you long after you finish the collection.

If you haven’t already, pick up a copy at Bookshop.org or Amazon.

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Anti-racist resources, because silence is not an option

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Click here for all things Jen